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AFRL STEM unit receives DOD STARBASE’s highest level award

  • Published
  • By Joanne Perkins
  • Air Force Research Laboratory

KIRTLAND AIR FORCE BASE, N.M. (AFRL) - The Air Force Research Laboratory’s Department of Defense STARBASE NM program, managed through the AFRL STEM Academy, Kirtland Air Force Base, New Mexico, received accolades and certification to the highest level, for its work with fifth graders in science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM.
The National DOD STARBASE Program, managed by the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Manpower and Reserve Affairs, inspects individual programs for class size, the number of topics presented per classroom, financial accountability, equipment, program management, personnel, outreach requirements and management of volunteers, as well as conducts interviews with staff, students, teachers and principals.
“We say, ‘hands-on, minds-on’ because young people learn and get excited about projects they can touch,” said Esti Gutierrez, program director. “We introduce concepts and describe potential career paths in the disciplines of engineering, math, physics, chemistry and technology. It’s important that students explore STEM in context so they can connect what they are learning to the world around them.”
The AFRL STEM Academy staff prepared many months for the certification inspections.
“The certification to a level III program is an arduous process,” Gutierrez explained. “After many months of preparation, followed by an on-site inspection, we not only passed the inspection, but several of our efforts were recognized as best practices.”
Only five of the 75 DOD STARBASE programs nationwide carry a level III, or high performing, designation, indicating they have achieved both level I and II status, and have made significant advances in the STARBASE vision and mission.
“In 2003, we were the first DOD STARBASE program to be established on an Air Force Base. We started with one-classroom, hosting 120 students in that first year,” said Ronda Cole Harmon, AFRL STEM Academy director. “The growth of the DOD STARBASE NM program has been tremendous, and now we operate three full-time classrooms and host more than ninety 25-hour classes and more than 2,250 students each year. We are also proud to prioritize underrepresented students in our state.”
Gutierrez described the curriculum offered to students and how the program expanded their program through volunteers.
“Students learn to program robots, create computer aided design projects, race CO2 cars to study Newton’s Laws of Motion, operate flight simulators, create inventions using circuits and so much more,” Gutierrez said. “We have fantastic volunteers across AFRL, Sandia National Labs and Kirtland, who interact with our students discussing flight and chemistry concepts and mentoring students in our advanced programs. We have really been able to extend our reach with our volunteers.” As recognized leaders, the team hosted training for new directors and mentored staff members from other locations.
The team at DOD STARBASE NM has provided hands-on learning for more than 14,000 students and teachers since its inception in 2003.
“DOD STARBASE NM will continue to be a high-performing program with students as our main focus,” Gutierrez said. “We want them to love STEM as much as we do and recognize that they themselves can work in a STEM field someday. We want them to be excited about learning and exploring.”
The Academy added STARBASE 2.0 for middle school students in 2015, and is now piloting a STARBASE 3.0 program, with Junior ROTC at Del Norte High School in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

About AFRL
The Air Force Research Laboratory, or AFRL, is the primary scientific research and development center for the Department of the Air Force. AFRL plays an integral role in leading the discovery, development and integration of affordable warfighting technologies for our air, space and cyberspace force. With a workforce of more than 11,500 across nine technology areas and 40 other operations across the globe, AFRL provides a diverse portfolio of science and technology ranging from fundamental to advanced research and technology development. For more information, visit