WINCHESTER, Va. – Col. Stephen Bales, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Middle East District commander, recently spent a morning with fifth and sixth grade students at STARBASE Academy in here.
STARBASE is a Department of Defense program, focused on elementary students, designed to motivate them to explore Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) as they continue their education. The academies serve students that are historically under-represented in STEM -- students who live in inner cities or rural locations, and are socio-economically disadvantaged, low in academic performance or have a disability are in the target group. These apply to all Frederick County, Virginia schools.
The academy in Winchester is housed at the Virginia National Guard Cherry-Beasley Readiness Center and hosts a different group of up to 28 students 50 weeks per year. The groups attend for a full school week, during which students are encouraged to set goals and achieve them. Guest speakers from STEM professions are scheduled for each session.
Bales started by introducing himself as having grown up on a dairy farm in southeastern Kentucky. He chose “Farm Boy” as his call sign. All STARBASE instructors, guest speakers and students use call signs instead of names. The students had lots of questions about his patches uniform, patches and his career, including if he liked to blow stuff up.
“I do like to blow things up, but now I’m in a job where we build things.” Bales said, and steered the conversation to his brief presentation and the broad field of engineering. He mentioned historical feats such as the Great Pyramids in Egypt, the Roman Aqueducts and the Great Wall of China. He asked the students where the world’s tallest building was and that was readily answered by a student using the call sign Films (and who as it turns out is the son of a Middle East District employee) who proudly proclaimed, “It’s the Burj Kalifah, in Dubai. And an even taller building is being built in Saudi Arabia.”
In stressing the importance of Math, Science, English and History to becoming an engineer, Bales explained that engineers are problem solvers. “No matter what an engineer is doing, ultimately he or she is solving a problem – the real purpose of engineering.”
The second phase of the morning was the hands-on portion. In teams of three to four students, the students had to design and build a weight-bearing bridge using up to 100 popsicle sticks and a hot glue gun. Teamwork was important, as is typically the case with engineers, in order to complete the task within the assigned one hour time frame.
The last phase was the weight tests. The bridges were tested across of 12-inch divide with a wire basket suspended beneath it. Each bridge was tested individually, with team members handing Bales weights to put in the basket until the bridge failed. In order to count, the bridge had to hold the weight for a 5-second count. They all held from 15 to 31 pounds and some students were surprised their bridges held so much. But student enthusiasm was high all around.
Encouraging the students to reach as far as they could, Bales told the students that his leadership philosophy includes: “Learn something today that will make you better tomorrow.”