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WCSD fifth graders get hands-on STEM experience at National Guard base

A group of students with their backs to the camera listen to a taller firefighter as he tells them about the fire truck they're facing.
Jose Davila IV
KUNR Public Radio
Desert Heights students line up to get in the cab of a fire truck at the Nevada Air National Guard Base in Reno, Nev., on Jan. 20, 2022.

The Nevada Air National Guard is giving Washoe County students a new STEM learning experience through a program at its base called STARBASE High Sierra.

On a recent morning in January, a class of Desert Heights Elementary School fifth graders got up close and personal with all kinds of large, bright red fire trucks at the fire station on the base near the Reno-Tahoe International Airport.

Emilia Naranjo was one of those students. When asked what she thought about her visit to the fire station on the way back to the program’s dedicated classrooms, she said, “It was cool. I like the color red, and the fire trucks were really big, so it was very interesting to see them.”

By the end of the program, Naranjo and her classmates will have met firefighters, pilots, and emergency management specialists. Each class of fifth graders comes to the base one day a week for five weeks through the program.

Tiffany Young is the STARBASE program director, and she said these opportunities are only a part of the entire learning experience for students.

“They have hands-on experiments, they can learn about STEM careers, and they have an opportunity to have a field trip within a field trip,” Young said.

Back at the fire station, students were able to ask firefighters about their jobs and even walked through the cabs of two different fire trucks.

Field trips like the one to the fire station allow students to explore new career possibilities, especially for low-income students from schools like Desert Heights, where 100 percent of students are eligible for free and reduced lunch.

During their days on the base, students can also conduct hands-on experiments, which range from learning computer-aided design to coding small LEGO robots. Program leaders say the five-week program allows the class to develop multiple science and mathematics skills. Furthermore, STEM education early in students’ careers can accelerate future skill-building in other topic areas like reading and problem-solving.

Even though the first class of fifth graders visited the base in August, the official opening ceremony for the program and its new building was held on Jan. 20.

Glenn Duncan Elementary School students were the first to complete the program, and their principal, Ryan Smith, was at the opening ceremony to celebrate. He said his students enjoyed their experience.

“They would just be so excited because all the learning was hands-on. They got to participate in experiments, collaborate with each other. They got a chance to bond with their teachers,” he shared.

Smith said Glenn Duncan students rarely leave their neighborhoods, and their classes at the base were the first field trips they had been on since the pandemic hit. So far, 15 Washoe County School District schools have sent students to the program.

The program is one of 66 throughout the country, and while the Department of Defense supervises the STARBASE programs, they’re hosted by various local military installations.

Maj. Gen. Ondra Berry, adjutant general of the Nevada National Guard, said teaching students valuable STEM skills not only helps their academic success but also boosts America’s national security by building a skilled, diverse workforce.

“If you can do science, technology, engineering and math, it catapults you; it accelerates you; it gives you a better understanding of the world and the workforce we need today,” Berry said. “And even in the military, when you have those capabilities, it helps further your ability to integrate and help us to win our nation’s wars.”

Berry and Young said they are looking to extend the program to middle and high school students to continue fostering STEM growth and interest.

Jose Davila IV is a corps member for Report for America, an initiative of the GroundTruth Project.

Jose Davila IV is a former reporter at KUNR Public Radio.
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