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Aiming for the stars: Starbase program inspires Duluth students

Adrianna Turcotte (left) and Kortney Stroik, Lowell Elementary fifth-graders, wait in excited anticipation as their rover prepares to move the last rock out of the circle on Friday. The girls used a code provided by the Starbase program to autonomously steer their rover to clear boulders out of the way to make a space to build an imaginary Mars base. The activity took place at the 148th Fighter Wing in Duluth on Friday morning. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com1 / 3
Joshua Troche, a fifth-grader at Lowell Elementary School in Duluth, writes up his final report on how his group's Mars base engineering project worked at the Starbase program at the 148th Fighter Wing on Friday. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com2 / 3
Kortney Stroik changes the parameters of the code on a laptop to steer the rover in a new pattern to clear rocks from an imaginary base on Mars. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com3 / 3

For a couple days this week, fifth-graders from Duluth's Lowell Elementary School had a chance to design a sustainable colony on Mars.

Starbase Minnesota brought its mission to educate youth in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) to the Minnesota Air National Guard's 148th Fighter Wing.

The introduction of the program to the Duluth area is something that has been in the works for a couple of years, said Aaron Salmela, science content specialist for the Duluth school district.

And this week the rover landed — a Mars rover, that is.

Building and programming a model of the Mars rover using LEGO EV3 sets and software, the Lowell students were tasked with using an integrated STEM approach to identify and solve problems that might arise at a colony on Mars.

Adrianna Turcotte, one of the fifth-graders, said she thought the program would interest anyone.

"It's a really fun program," she said. "For two days we learn a lot about technology, what NASA is doing, coding, and astronaut training. Lots of people would enjoy it."

Kim Van Wie, executive director of Starbase Minnesota, said the program has been around since 1993 and its purpose is to educate and inspire students in math and science.

"There has been a high commitment to Title I schools (schools with a high percentage of students in poverty) but we want to expand," she said. "In STEM girls have been underrepresented and there are so many opportunities in the future. The reality is, for global competitiveness we need STEM education."

In the Twin Cities metro area the program has educated 55,000 students since its inception, and operates as a five-day immersive program. The introductory version that visited Duluth this week was a two-day program for two separate fifth-grade classes.

The program is funded through the Department of Defense and the state of Minnesota, as well as numerous donations from private industry. That allows all materials and experts to be provided free of charge to school districts, often leaving transportation — in this case, to and from the National Guard base — as the only expense the district would be responsible for.

Still, that cost is not a small one, and for a school district such as Duluth — one that is facing a deficit for the coming year — it's not an easy cost to cover.

"We're looking at different options," Salmela said. "Community support will be one avenue — we've already received $1,000 from the AAR Corporation."

Sen. Erik Simonson, DFL-Duluth, was in attendance on Friday to see what the kids were up to, and he expressed his appreciation for the program.

"They are new and innovative ideas that keep kids engaged," he said.

Regarding the prospect of bringing the program to Duluth on a larger scale, he explained it would be a benefit not just for Duluth but for the entire region.

"We've introduced legislation to get funding for the next fiscal year to bring it here," he said. "I am 100 percent behind getting this up and running."

Simonson said he's also happy to see the donations from corporations such as Microsoft, 3M and St. Jude Medical that the program receives.

"It is directly related to their future, too," he said.

Kelsey Holt, one of the teachers whose class attended the program this week, expressed gratitude for the opportunity.

She pointed out it's not just the students who benefit from the time, resources and Starbase teachers, who all are state-licensed educators.

"These folks are experts," she said. "I learn, too."

She said that after her students' first day on Thursday, all they could do was talk about Mars and Starbase.

"Some parents already have said it is all the kids talk about," she said.

The students will be sure to be talking about it for some time.

"This is one of my most favorite field trips I've ever done," Kortney Stroik said.

"It's awesome," added classmate Faith Hanson.

For more information about Starbase, visit