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SDN provides a vehicle to the world of STEM

South Dakota STARBASE tour of Ellsworth
South Dakota STARBASE introduces students to the world of STEM, including visiting the Ellsworth Air Force Base to learn about airplanes and helicopters.

In sixth grade, Gretchen Noble developed a keen interest in space thanks to a NOVA video on the vastness of the galaxy. The Rapid City student dreamed of becoming an astronomer or even an astrophysicist.

Then, she heard about STARBASE, a program that introduces underserved students to the world of science, technology, engineering and math, most often referred to as STEM. Her STARBASE experience shifted her gaze to engineering, eventually linking her to the high school robotics team. She never looked back.

Today, Noble is a sophomore mechanical engineering major at South Dakota Mines in Rapid City, South Dakota. She’s also the recipient of a prestigious U.S. Department of Defense SMART scholarship, which covers all her educational costs and provides both internships and a job with the DOD after graduation.

“All of the opportunities I’ve had, I think they really started at STARBASE,” she says.

SDN Communications employees with STARBASE vehicle
STARBASE board vice president Sarah Tuntland and board member Chris Aeilts, both SDN Communications employees, stand with the vehicle that SDN wrapped and donated to STARBASE Rapid City.

SDN Communications is proud to play a small role in the lives of students like Noble through the STARBASE program. In early 2023, SDN donated one of its fleet vehicles, a 2016 Chevy Traverse, to the Rapid City program, allowing them to continue to take STARBASE to rural schools and to Native American reservations in the area. SDN also covered the cost of wrapping the vehicle to promote the STARBASE program.

SDN has supported STARBASE for almost a decade, donating money and volunteer hours. Several employees have served on the board. Sales engineer Chris Aeilts used to be president and is currently an ex-officio board member.

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“This is a cool program,” says Sarah Tuntland, director of corporate operations with SDN and vice president of the STARBASE Board of Directors. “It develops those opportunities for younger kids to be involved and truly understand what STEM is … it’s a way to get them excited.”

STARBASE is a U.S. Department of Defense program that focuses on elementary and middle school students in underserved populations. The program engages students with hands-on activities with the goal of piquing their interest in STEM. It includes 25 hours of STEM curriculum for grade schoolers and 20 hours for middle school students. In South Dakota, STARBASE serves approximately 3,600 students each year with operations based out of Rapid City and Sioux Falls. In western South Dakota, STARBASE serves 68 classrooms — 33 in Rapid City and 35 in rural schools in the area.

South Dakota STARBASE
South Dakota STARBASE has programs based in Rapid City and Sioux Falls.

Polly Unterbrunner directs the STARBASE program in Rapid City, which is housed at Camp Rapid, the Army National Guard installation. She said the donation of the vehicle makes a huge difference for the program’s traveling program, called NOVA Honor. The traveling program takes the curriculum and all the supplies to the schools outside of Rapid City, a task that occasionally requires a vehicle that can pull a trailer full of equipment.

“Our traveling team would not survive without the donation of vehicles like this one. We've only ever been able to use vehicles that we can get for low or no cost because our federal funds won't currently cover vehicle purchases. Therefore, it’s left up to our nonprofit board to raise funds to purchase them,” she says. “We so appreciate SDN’s support.”

Tuntland says SDN was pleased to make the donation and excited to see students engaged in STEM curriculum. “They drive long distances, and they need a good vehicle,” she says. “We were glad it worked out to donate the vehicle.”

As for Noble, she’s looking forward to a career in engineering. And she looks back at her STARBASE experience as a critical turning point in her life. “STARBASE did so much for me. And it’s run by good people. They all want to see the kids succeed,” she said. “It just opened so many doors for me.”