Engineering students mentor at middle school with STARBASE

This spring, through the STARBASE Nebraska program, six students at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) College of Engineering 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 (DoD) 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 Nebraska National Guard support and oversight of the local program. Each school year, approximately 750 fifth-grade students attend STARBASE Academy for five days of classes (25 total hours each) with up to 35 students per class at the Penterman Armory, part of the Nebraska National Guard base in northwest Lincoln. The students tour Black Hawk helicopters and KC-135 Stratotanker jets, build and launch rockets, and conduct scientific experiments.

This momentum, along with local need, made Nebraska one of five sites selected as a STARBASE 2.0 pilot site for an afterschool team mentoring program (other sites are in Georgia, Ohio, Oklahoma, and South Dakota). 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 United States Census definition as low-income, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Eighty-five percent of Culler families qualify under this guideline.)

Sherry Pawelko, director of STARBASE Nebraska, plans curriculum for each mentoring session, coordinates field trips and guest speakers, and reports the Lincoln site’s progress to stakeholders in Washington, D.C.

"Many kids grow up loving science and math, but sometimes along the way they lose that passion," Pawelko said. "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 (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics)." Pawelko recruited at UNL for mentors for the afterschool program, and UNL 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.

The afterschool mentors, including several retired military members, received training from Pawelko using a manual detailing projects and approaches. For several weeks in the Culler classrooms, the mentors led an activity with 10 teams of two or three "mentees" building 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." The UNL engineering students guided the mentees through any difficulties.

"I think the kids are enjoying this," said Toftul. "I like to think we’re helping to make a difference." Sixth-grader Fawn Byron agreed: "The coolest part was starting this project."

Meanwhile, Parris assured sixth-grader Jaquesha Bryant not to worry about the pace of others’ projects. "Each week we do a little more," he explained.

Kelley admitted he hadn’t worked much with middle school students since he was one and wished his school had offered something like this. His mentees were quick to point out that Kelley had worked with NASA, and were proud to show off their robot and what they had learned while building it: "The syringes do hydraulics. 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."

After the robot-building ended and the sixth-graders dispersed, Pawelko and the mentors gathered to discuss future sessions. The following week, engineering graduate student Kyle Strabala was scheduled to give a presentation about working on surgical robotics at UNL; Pawelko was thrilled to expand on the work done so far. Recapping the session that had just ended, Pawelko asked, "How did it go today?"

Gronewald responded that he knows the younger students are appreciating the mentors’ presence, because increasingly 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," Gronewald added. "They were quiet but I knew they were ‘into it’ and having fun."

As mentors stowed STARBASE 2.0 supplies in Culler hallway lockers, Gronewald lingered. "It’s great to share with these kids some of the things we [mentors] have learned. I like giving them the excitement of engineering."

For more information about the STARBASE program, go to