W.Va. science camps face threatening budget cuts
CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — Starbase is in danger.
It sounds like something from science fiction, but it's serious.
The science, technology, engineering and math camp, administered by the United States Department of Defense on 76 military bases nationwide, is facing down threats to its federal funding.
That could close two Starbase camps in West Virginia — one in Charleston and another in Martinsburg. The Charleston camp, hosted by the 130th Airlift Wing, has served more than 14,000 Kanawha County school children since it opened in 2001.
Starbase's threats are on a national level, and are on all sides: an amendment to the Department of Defense budget that eliminated the program was eventually left out of the bill, but the current federal budget doesn't include any funding for the program. There's also been some talk of moving the program away from the Department of Defense and shifting it to the Department of Education, which could effectively kill the program as it exists today.
"Since we're on a military base we have things like airplanes and people on airplanes," said Chris Treadway, the director of Charleston's Starbase academy. "It's a great place for kids to see those folks, to see STEM careers in action and having a positive role."
Starbase is open to fifth-graders who come with their classrooms — it's like a mini field trip over a period of time. Classes usually spend five days at Starbase, or 25 instructional hours.
Those 25 hours are a marathon of experiments and projects in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math — what are commonly called the STEM fields in the education community.
STEM has been a trendy topic in education circles over the last several years. The dearth of qualified workers for an increasing number of high-tech jobs has left school and government officials wondering how to better train students in those fields, and how to encourage more kids to seek those jobs.
That's what makes the threat of the funding loss so disconcerting to Treadway and other fans of Starbase. They think students need more things like Starbase, not less.
"When you're an elementary teacher you feel like you're just talking to them, blah, blah, blah," said Kathy Christian, a teacher a Pinch Elementary. "It's not the same as having the technology and the room and the motivation."
Fans of the program have come out en masse to support it, and oppose cuts in its funding. A national Facebook group has more than 1,200 members, and more every day. Teachers from Kenna, Ruthlawn, Montrose, Shoals and Kanawha City elementary schools have all taken to that Facebook page to come out in support of the program.
The activities at Starbase are on a scale that classroom teachers just can't accomplish on their own. Kids build rockets and use air compressors. They design things on computers and then make them with three-dimensional printers.
"And the whole place is set up for this kind of thing," Christian said. "It's something that you can't duplicate in your room."