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Heinrich Announces Funding For Innovative STEM Education Program At KAFB

Rep. Martin Heinrich (D-NM)
Rep. Martin Heinrich (D-NM)

Commentary: Today, U.S. Senator Martin Heinrich (D-N.M), a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, announced $25 million in authorized funding for the continuation of the nationwide STARBASE program, which motivates fifth grade students to explore Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) through hands-on learning in collaboration with military installations. The program in New Mexico is based at Air Force Research Laboratory's (AFRL) La Luz Academy where scientists, engineers, and military volunteers from AFRL and other Kirtland Air Force Base (KAFB) organizations apply abstract principles to real world situations by giving students interactive demonstrations on the use of STEM in different settings and careers.

"We need more New Mexico students who are passionate about STEM to fill the in-demand jobs at our national labs and military installations," said Sen. Heinrich. "STARBASE is a highly effective program that strengthens the relationships between the military, communities, and local school districts. The program at AFRL's La Luz Academy exposes students to STEM at a critical age and puts them on the path to become the next generation of innovators and entrepreneurs."

The announcement was made at KAFB where Senator Heinrich was joined by Dr. Kelly Hammett, Director of AFRL Directed Energy; Ronda Cole, Director of La Luz Academy; and Dr. Chaouki Abdallah, University of New Mexico Provost.

Senator Heinrich toured La Luz Academy and met with students who have participated in the STARBASE program. The STARBASE program at La Luz Academy is geared toward students who are historically under-represented in the STEM fields and allows them to participate in a 25-hour hands-on curriculum where they solve scientific challenges related to aerospace.  In New Mexico, the program has served nearly 10,000 5th grade students.

Director of La Luz Academy Ronda Cole said, "Department of Defense STARBASE is a vital program in our community that allows us to begin laying the foundation for our future workforce by providing hands-on minds-on opportunities that introduce students to STEM concepts and career fields. This program involves students in the exploration and practical application of STEM concepts, an approach that brings meaning to the content students are learning. Research has shown that students start evaluating their interests and intellectual strengths in elementary school and by middle school they use that self-assessment to define their career aspirations.  Department of Defense STARBASE plants the seeds for students to begin to imagine what they might become if they go on to pursue studies in STEM fields."

Senator Heinrich also discussed giving the Department of Defense civilian on-campus recruiting authority, which enables AFRL, White Sands Missile Range, and other installations specializing in research, development, testing, and evaluation to hire from New Mexico's academic institutions.

"The long-term success of Kirtland Air Force Base can be enhanced by our college graduates, which is why I helped create a new direct-hire authority to allow Department of Defense recruiters to hire the best graduates directly from university campuses, including UNM, New Mexico Tech, and New Mexico State," said Sen. Heinrich. "This measure, along with the continuation of the STARBASE program, will strengthen the STEM pipeline and ensure that New Mexicans are prepared for the jobs of the future."

In addition to these provisions, Senator Heinrich also highlighted $183 million for research and development of directed energy (DE) weapon systems and other key advancements he secured in the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) to benefit New Mexico's men and women in uniform, military installations, national laboratories, and job creation throughout the state. For a full list of measures secured in the NDAA for New Mexico, click here.

Director of AFRL Directed Energy Dr. Kelly Hammett said, "Air Force interest in DE is at an all-time high, and our senior leaders are strong advocates to develop and transition DE weapons technology as soon as technically feasible. We are trying to make that a reality by 2020. Our collaborations with UNM are strong and growing, and we are looking forward to the next step in our relationship, which is Innovate ABQ in downtown Albuquerque. We currently have cooperative research and development agreements with UNM that allow us to share equipment and personnel, and the next step is to jointly inhabit an innovation center downtown which will bring together government researchers, university faculty and students, and small business to encourage tech transfer and commercialization of dual use technologies. This is a joint venture with the Mayor and the city of Albuquerque, and we look forward to a positive impact on the city and the local economy, and appreciate the Senator and city government's support of our AFRL mission, which enable us to develop technology needed to keep the fight unfair for our men and women in uniform."

University of New Mexico Provost Dr. Chaouki Abdallah said, "Directed energy is a new frontier for national security research, and UNM has been a leader in that arena for more than 20 years.  Along with our partners in the Air Force Research Lab, and at Kirtland Air Force Base, we are determined to be at the forefront of this research and to provide exciting new opportunities for students and important career prospects with the Department of Defense."

The NDAA sets spending levels and policies for fiscal year 2017. NDAA authorizes funding for the Department of Energy's nuclear weapons programs at Sandia and Los Alamos National Laboratories, as well as the Department of Energy's environmental cleanup programs including the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP).