Touching the Future: STARBASE Louisiana earns DoD recognition

  • Published
  • By Senior Master Sgt. Ted Daigle
  • 307th Bomb Wing

It’s a typical Hollywood movie scene. Closed school doors sit quietly when suddenly a bell rings. An instant later, those doors crash open to release a tidal wave of students all racing to get away from the classroom as fast as they can.

That scene could never happen at STARBASE Louisiana, the Department of Defense STEM program housed here.

When 5th grade students come here to dive deep into Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math, they don’t want to leave. It’s just one of the reasons the STARBASE Louisiana staff recently earned the Department of Defense STEM Advocate and Outreach Quarterly Award.

“I've had so many students tell me at the end of the program, 'I don't want to leave!'" said Laurie Ilgenfritz, the director of STARBASE Louisiana. "That's how I know we are making a difference, and it's what gets me out of bed in the morning."

The student's pleas might surprise anyone observing the classroom setting because the classes are challenging. A typical day in the  course involves heavy doses of problem solving and critical thinking.

Here, students must perform at a high level while trying to master concepts like Computer Aided Design and Manufacturing, 3D printing, robotics, and programming, to name a few. The program takes a fail-until-you-succeed mentality that prevents students from quitting if they make a mistake.

However, that approach, coupled with hands-on learning, hits the mark for most students.

"I’ll walk through the classrooms and hear students say, ‘That’s the coolest thing I’ve ever done,’” said Ilgenfritz.

STARBASE Louisiana’s efforts don’t stop at 5th grade, however. The staff sponsors more than 44 after-school clubs in grades 6-12, a remarkable feat considering the national average is 2-3.

And the impact of those clubs is significant.

The STARBASE Louisiana high school rocketry team was recently named a national competition qualifier for the third year in a row. All five graduating seniors from last year’s team entered aerospace fields of study at universities nationwide.

That type of outcome is music to the ears of Dr. Donna Senft, the chief scientist for Air Force Global Strike Command, who nominated STARBASE Louisiana for the award.

“The future capabilities of Air Force Global Strike Command and the DoD, in general, depend upon a pipeline of STEM graduates,” she said.

That need is one of the great motivators for the STARBASE Louisiana staff to connect STEM education to potential careers.

“Without STARBASE, many of our students simply would not be exposed to some of the jobs they can do with a STEM background, said Ilgenfritz. “You can’t be what you can’t see.”

The DoD STEM Advocate and Outreach Quarterly Award had historically been awarded to individuals. However, Ilgenfritz quickly pointed out that the program’s success hinges on every staff member.

Ilgenfritz cited the STEM Zone at this year’s Defenders of Liberty Airshow as just one of the many STEM outreach efforts spearheaded by STARBASE Louisiana’s staff.

The effort brought dozens of STEM-related programs, schools, and companies together to provide hands-on learning opportunities for the capacity crowds gathered at the airshow.

Events like the STEM Zone and the positive impact on the community have made STARBASE Louisiana a leader in increasing STEM outreach, according to Col. David Anderson, 307th Bomb Wing commander.

“STARBASE Louisiana has been a leader in STEM education since its inception more than 20 years ago, and the 307th Bomb Wing is proud to sponsor them,” he said. “Laurie and her team’s efforts will have a positive impact for decades.”