CLEARFIELD — Once school has let out, the halls of North Davis Junior High School are empty on a typical afternoon, except for the occasional custodian vacuuming.

On Wednesday, however, one locker-lined walkway transformed into a makeshift drone obstacle course for the culmination of STARBASE 2.0, a program meant to increase students’ interest in STEM fields. As the small aircrafts weaved around cones and through PVC pipe frames, sometimes smashing into doorjambs and lockers, exuberant seventh graders cheered.

“Be careful, Ms. Jager!” shouted one student, as his drone launched forward. “I don’t want to hit you. Then I’d have to pay for medical bills.”

Marissa Jager is the instructor for STARBASE 2.0, which is run by the U.S. Department of Defense. The program started just over a quarter of a century ago in Michigan after a teacher recognized the need for more technology-based instruction and worked with her local Air Force base to bring it to the classroom.

Hill Air Force Base brought STARBASE, or Science and Technology Academies Reinforcing Basic Aviation and Space Exploration, to Utah almost 10 years ago, said local Director Dave Amparan in a promotional video made by the Davis School District. Jager said STARBASE now provides instruction at schools in the Davis, Ogden and Weber school districts, with most concentrated in Davis.

The program initially targeted fifth graders, but in the last couple of years, Hill Air Force Base has joined other locations in expanding it to sixth and seventh graders, hence the “2.0.” Hill’s STARBASE 2.0 portion of the program, Jager said, is now one of the largest in the country.

As the current seventh grade cohort continues on in their academic career, Hill Air Force Base plans to grow the program with them. It will expand to include eighth graders next year.

“My main focus is to continue keeping those students in STARBASE until they graduate high school,” Jager said.

While the STARBASE 1.0 program will wrap in a school’s entire fifth grade, each STARBASE 2.0 group is capped at 12 students per school, Jager said, and uses an application system. Respective schools select participants out of the applicants, typically taking into consideration a student’s demonstrated interest and the diversity of the group.

STARBASE selects which schools it will operate on based on their demographics, typically choosing to provide the opportunity to those with a widely underprivileged population, like Title I schools. The U.S. Department of Education classifies schools with a high concentration of students who qualify for free or reduced price lunch as Title I.

North Davis Junior High, for example, is a Title I school. According to enrollment data from the Utah State Board of Education, 50.9% of the school’s students are considered economically disadvantaged.

Jager said the program aims to increase the interest in science and math for students at these schools and equip them to potentially work toward a career based in STEM — science, technology, engineering and math.

“I personally love science and technology, and I want to inspire as many kids as possible to get interested in this at a young age,” Jager said. “There is a huge need in the world for scientists and engineers and technology, and there’s not enough people to meet the need.”

According to a 2020 report released by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, STEM jobs are expected to grow 8% by 2029, compared to 3.4% growth for non-STEM jobs. The people who fill STEM jobs are traditionally most often male and white.

One of the students who has been inspired by STARBASE is seventh grader Kaitlyn Bickel. She said she initially joined the program because she thought it sounded fun, but that it has now given her a better sense of direction for her future career.

“I definitely want to try to have a STEM job, something that’s kind of similar to this programming in engineering,” Bickel said.

Students in STARBASE 2.0 have learned about a wide range of subjects over the course of the six-week program, including genetics, geology and physics. They figured out how to fill out a Punnett square, deepened their understanding on the food chain and built Rube Goldberg machines.

Bickel said she loved her entire STARBASE experience, but learning how to program and fly drones has been her favorite part.

“It makes me think a lot and it makes me try and figure out solutions to problems without any help, because we aren’t given very much direction,” she said. “It’s just kind of like, here’s what you’re supposed to do, go do it.”

Jager said she wishes she had the opportunity to participate in a program like STARBASE as a kid, adding that she wasn’t aware of all of the possibilities offered by a STEM career.

She’s proud, though, to see her students not only taking an interest in STEM but excelling in it too. Sometimes, Jager said, she sees them outsmarting engineers who volunteer as mentors with the program. “That is beautiful to me.”

Contact reporter Emily Anderson at eanderson@standard.net. Follow her on Twitter at @emilyreanderson.

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