Front and Center
Nebraska Engineering Students Mentor at Middle School with DOD's Starbase
This spring through the STARBASE Nebraska program, six UNL College of Engineering students have dedicated an hour each week to go back to sixth grade and help the next generation of engineers.
STARBASE 2.0, a Department of Defense program, mentors at-risk youth and develops their skills in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. DoD STARBASE has 60 sites in the U.S., and military mind power is a key resource, evidenced by the Nebraska National Guard support and oversight of the local program. This momentum, along with local need, made STARBASE Nebraska one of five pilot sites adding an afterschool program. Lincoln’s Culler Middle School fits the STARBASE program’s Title I focus. (To qualify as a Title I school, a school must have 40 percent or more of its students come from families that qualify under the U.S. Census definition as low-income, according to the U.S. Department of Education.) Eighty-five percent of Culler families qualify under this guideline.
"Many kids grow up loving science and math, but sometimes along the way they lose that passion," said Sherry Pawelko, director of STARBASE Nebraska. "This program keeps kids thinking about those topics and offers them opportunities they might not otherwise have.
The team mentoring component promotes positive life skills—leadership, goal setting, self esteem, etc.—and provides youth experiences with mentors passionate about STEM."
Pawelko recruited at UNL for mentors in the afterschool program, and Nebraska Engineering students responded in force. Mechanical engineering seniors Andrew Kelley and Joe Bartels, and juniors Austin Parris, Caleb Gronewald and Charlie Nichols got on board; so did Alexandra Toftul, a junior majoring in mathematics and electrical engineering.
After training with Pawelko, mentors work each week. One activity formed 10 teams of two or three "mentees" to build robots with hydraulic controls. Culler sixth grader Josh Gerdes called the activity "fun" and described the most challenging part as "remembering not to forget a step." "I think the kids are enjoying this," said Toftul.
"I like to think we’re helping to make a difference."
Kelley admitted he hadn’t worked much with middle school students since he was one and wished his school had something like this. His mentees were quick to point out that Kelley had worked with NASA, and were also proud to show off their robot and what they learned while building it.
"The syringes do hydraulics," Gerdes explained. "See, one closes and sends the liquid down and pushes on one part, and another one pulls the water that opens the other part." Gazes followed the tubes with blue, green, red and yellow fluid indicating directions (up, down, right, left) in controlling the balsa robot’s grasping arms.
"Yes," Kelley affirmed, over the mentees’ shoulders. "That’s kinematics, with mechanisms to get the motion." The mentees cheered as they made the robot pick up a pen, but suddenly, in a moment of middle school enthusiasm, a tube came loose. "That’s OK," Kelley smiled, "next week you can fix it."
The following week, Nebraska Engineering grad student Kyle Strabala was scheduled to give a presentation about working on surgical robotics at UNL; Pawelko was thrilled to expand on the work so far. She frequently checks in with the mentors in post-session recaps.
Gronewald observed that the younger students are appreciating the mentors’ presence, demonstrated by how some of the students stay longer than a session’s allotted time.
"It’s like they respect us and trust us more," he said. "Today we got going and I mostly watched (the mentees) put the robot together on their own … they were quiet but I knew they were ‘into it’ and having fun."
He concluded: "It’s great to share with these kids some of the things we (mentors) have learned. I like giving them the excitement of engineering."