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Budget ax could drop on Guard’s youth project

Starbase hailed as catalyst for hands-on tech training

– A proposal before Congress would close the 13-month-old Starbase Indiana, a local lab where fifth-graders study science, technology, engineering and math.

A Senate amendment to a continuing appropriations bill would eliminate funding for the U.S. Department of Defense’s Starbase program, which operates 75 academies around the country, including at the Air National Guard’s 122nd Fighter Wing along Ferguson Road.

“That would really be a shame,” said Stephany Bourne, principal of Indian Village Elementary School, which sent 64 students to the local lab during the fall semester.

“It’s an absolutely phenomenal program,” Bourne said. “It’s cutting-edge. It’s really needed.”

Spokeswomen for Sens. Dan Coats, R-Ind., and Joe Donnelly, D-Ind., said Thursday the amendment, filed by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., has not been scheduled for a vote.

“We do not yet know if or when that amendment will be called,” Elizabeth Shappell, communications director for Donnelly, said in an email.

The Senate has been expected to vote on remaining amendments and the entire continuing resolution today.

Nationwide, Starbase was supposed to receive about $21 million in funding in the fiscal year that ends Sept. 30. But the debt-ridden federal government has been operating on a series of funding extensions, and Congress has until March 27 to approve an extension for the remainder of the fiscal year.

“We’re a drop in the bucket” of defense spending, Starbase Indiana program director Scott Liebhauser said.

The local lab employs four full-time staff members and has a yearly budget of $300,000. The academy provides free programming for about 30 students each day. Each student typically attends once a week for five weeks. Summer camps are offered, too.

“We’ve been absolutely full from Day 1. … As soon as they come through, they want to schedule for next year. They’re very excited about it,” Liebhauser said.

“We’re a hands-on facility. It’s very high-tech stuff that the fifth-graders are able to access here, with robots and rockets and CAD programming,” he said.

Starbase Indiana draws students from public, private and home schools in northeast Indiana, mostly from Allen County.

The 122nd Fighter Wing said in a prepared statement that 820 students graduated from the academy in its first year. The average increase in scores from a pre-test to a post-test is 42 percent, the fighter wing said.

“I have seen fifth-graders that come into the program who have no interest in STEM, graduate full of excitement for science and technology,” base commander Col. David Augustine said in a statement.

Indian Village principal Bourne said the program teaches important skills: “Working in teams. Problem solving. Looking at higher-order thinking skills. Taking direction from different people. Designing projects.”

According to its website, Starbase operates at 75 military bases in 38 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico.

The local academy is the only one in Indiana.

“We’re very, very fortunate to have this in Fort Wayne,” Bourne said.

bfrancisco@jg.net

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