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STARBASE Inspiring Summer Camps Build STEM Skills
by U.S. Air Force/Air National Guard John Hughel
Oregon Military Department Public Affairs
August 2, 2022

For children, playing and learning can take shape in many forms, whether it comes through artistic expression or scientific discovery. For kids attending the STARBASE summer camps in Oregon, having fun comes from eager experimentation and testing boundaries.

Over a three-day summer camp from July 12-14, 2022 nearly a dozen children from the Hermiston area sharpened their creative designs and engineering abilities during the BattleBot Camp at STARBASE Umatilla. The class allows 4th through 7th graders a chance to build STEM skills in a hands-on and exciting interactive atmosphere.

Staff members of STARBASE Umatilla, observe students attending the STARBASE BattleBot take part in the Battle Royale on July 14, 2022 during the three-day camp held at Camp Umatilla, Oregon. The Department of Defense's STARBASE program provides underserved students in the U.S. an opportunity to explore science, technology, engineering, and mathematics in a stimulating community based outreach program. (U.S. Air Force/Air National Guard photo by John Hughel, Oregon Military Department Public Affairs)
Staff members of STARBASE Umatilla, observe students attending the STARBASE BattleBot take part in the Battle Royale on July 14, 2022 during the three-day camp held at Camp Umatilla, Oregon. The Department of Defense's STARBASE program provides underserved students in the U.S. an opportunity to explore science, technology, engineering, and mathematics in a stimulating community based outreach program. (U.S. Air Force/Air National Guard photo by John Hughel, Oregon Military Department Public Affairs)

The Department of Defense's STARBASE program provides underserved students in the U.S. an opportunity to explore science, technology, engineering, and mathematics in a stimulating community based outreach program.

“When the kids first walk in the classroom, they can be somewhat intimidated, but right away we start with concepts and the design wheel, introducing why it’s okay to fail -- because by failing you learn something,” said Denise Kortes, State Director for STARBASE Oregon.

The BattleBot summer camps are aimed at getting kids over those initial classroom pressures by allowing time to design, practice, test and rebuild their robots beginning with basic turning movements, then onto inclined planes and an obstacle course. The final day is a bracket style tournament and a no holds barred battle royale using their Lego robots.

“They think they are just having fun, but right away they are learning not only about robotics and physics, but learning how to overcome setbacks through trial and error,” Kortes said.

During her 10 years with STARBASE education, Kortes has not just seen the program grow, but has witnessed the lasting impact it has made on the students who attend the summer camps and programs during the school year.

“We have things that kids can experiment with that some of the schools in the area cannot afford,” she further explained. “In 2014 we started using iPads because they saved paper and printing cost, and were more interactive for the students. It also took time to print out booklets and, really, the kids were not that interested in using those materials. Once we introduced the work on iPads, it only enhanced their interest in technology.”

The STARBASE Academy at Camp Umatilla is the fourth and newest Academy in the state of Oregon, opening last year. In 2019 Camp Rilea in Warrenton was added, joining the two established Academies at the Portland Air National Guard Base and Kingsley Field in Klamath Falls.

“Oregon is one of the few states that has four academies,” Kortes said. “Just in Portland, we’re seeing 60 school classes from different public schools in an academic year, where the kids are getting 25 hours of work during those five days in the classroom.”

There is no testing or grades. Therefore, everything the kids do in the program is a success because the program is designed around innovation and working in groups to develop solutions.

“The first day they arrive, the kids work on the programming aspect of robot building, which includes sensors to get their robots to function with automatic controls,” said Colin Haines, who has served as the Deputy Director of STARBASE Umatilla since the site opened two years ago. “The second two days are focused on engineering, so that their robots are agile, and can battle each other.”

Students attending the STARBASE BattleBot camp use iPads to program their robots on July 12, 2022 during the three-day camp at Camp Umatilla, Oregon. (U.S. Air Force/Air National Guard photo by John Hughel, Oregon Military Department Public Affairs)
Students attending the STARBASE BattleBot camp use iPads to program their robots on July 12, 2022 during the three-day camp at Camp Umatilla, Oregon. (U.S. Air Force/Air National Guard photo by John Hughel, Oregon Military Department Public Affairs)

 The excitement during each testing phase is matched when the campers work on modifications. Each child builds their own robot, but they also work with a partner to share ideas and strategize for the BattleBot competition.

“The combination of coding and engineering is really where they develop academically,” Haines said.

The small class size of 10 to 12 campers helps Haines both teach the class and offer one-on-one feedback the campers have. Each team of two has their own table, upon which they can assemble the motors, Lego parts and other pieces to build the ultimate BattleBot robot.

“Teamwork is key,” Haines said. “Number one, it gives them confidence, and secondly, social learning is often the best learning. Collaboration gives them multiple ideas. They turn the learning into play.”

Haines said the BattleBot camp needs to be exciting given all the other choices kids have for summer fun.

“We really need to go above and beyond the fun level because they could be playing baseball or at home with video games,” he said.

Alexander Gonzalez, a 6th grader at Sandstone Middle School in Hermiston, was one of those campers eager to attend -- and equally excited to talk about all the distinctive features of his automaton, “Walking Brick.”

“The way I built it was to put a scoop on the back and front, then a shield so the other robots can’t hit it,” he explained. “I also put a hammer on the back to attack with but made sure it is protected on the sides.”

He joined the camp with his sister Gissel Gonzalez, an 8th grader, who also attends Sandstone Middle School. But for the BattleBot camp, they were on opposing teams.

“I put a ramp on my robot to scoop and lift up others,” Gissel said, highlighting a dissimilar design for her robot, “King Bob.”

The design was good enough to have her advance to the semi-finals. She took a quick lunch break, so she could make some last minute changes for the finals. This week at camp was Gissel and Alexander’s first time attending a STARBASE class, but both are excited about returning in the future.

“We were able to make our robots better and better by trying out new designs,” Gissel said. “In school, I hope to get more of this kind of training in technology.”

This is another aspect with the STARBASE program, which helps bridge those gaps that some schools are missing in STEM education.

“When you can get kids to accidently learn something when they are goofing around, that’s a real win,” Haines said. “That just makes you feel good to know these kids want to actively stay engaged…we live for that ‘Ah ha moment,’ when they connect to something new.”

Prior to becoming an instructor for STARBASE, Haines had worked as a school teacher after leaving the U.S. Army, where he spent 10 years as a medic. He said being back on a military post feels supportive too.

STARBASE Umatilla Oregon Director Denise Kortes and Deputy Director Colin Haines observe students attending the STARBASE BattleBot participating in the Battle Royale on July 13, 2022 during the three-day camp held at Camp Umatilla, Oregon. (U.S. Air Force/Air National Guard photo by John Hughel, Oregon Military Department Public Affairs)
STARBASE Umatilla Oregon Director Denise Kortes and Deputy Director Colin Haines observe students attending the STARBASE BattleBot participating in the Battle Royale on July 13, 2022 during the three-day camp held at Camp Umatilla, Oregon. (U.S. Air Force/Air National Guard photo by John Hughel, Oregon Military Department Public Affairs)

“It’s great seeing uniformed soldiers again,” he said. “It feels homey ... I like it.”

In many ways, Camp Umatilla is going through a comparable renaissance. Originally built in 1940 as the Umatilla Army Chemical Depot, it comprised 1,001 concrete igloos, with grounds for testing, demolition, and disposal of weapons. In 2005 Camp Umatilla began the process of transferring over 7,500 acres to the Oregon National Guard, now renovating the post to accommodate new training missions.

STARBASE is just one of those new missions at Camp Umatilla, and it has already made a positive contribution to the community in Eastern Oregon.

“During the school year, we’re infinitely more fun than a regular classroom,” Haines said. “That’s one reason this place is really special.”

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