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Participating in the ribbon-cutting ceremony Sept. 16 at the Fort Drum DoD STARBASE Academy were, from left, Stephen Todd, Jefferson-Lewis BOCES district superintendent; Eric Wagenaar, Fort Drum deputy to the garrison commander; Command Sgt. Maj. Shelly Jenkins, Fort Drum garrison senior enlisted adviser; Col. James Zacchino Jr., Fort Drum garrison commander; Michael O'Toole, Civil-Military Programs director with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Manpower and Reserve Affairs; and Joanne Witt, Fort Drum DoD STARBASE Academy director. (Photo by Mike Strasser, Fort Drum Garrison Public Affairs)

Fort Drum officials, educators celebrate new STEM initiative at DoD STARBASE ceremony

Mike Strasser

Fort Drum Garrison Public Affairs

FORT DRUM, N.Y. (Sept. 19, 2022) – Fort Drum officials, educators and local school district representatives gathered Sept. 16 outside the DoD STARBASE Academy for a ribbon-cutting ceremony to commemorate the launch of a new STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education program for fifth-grade students.

Col. James Zacchino Jr., Fort Drum garrison commander, said that the STARBASE Academy is a representation of the partnership between Fort Drum and North Country school districts and the shared responsibility to provide children with the best opportunities to succeed.

"I can personally attest to the extraordinary schools, people and support given to Fort Drum," he said. "Not only did I attend school here in the North Country, but I'm also a father to a fifth grader who attends school off the installation. So, it makes this endeavor even more special to me, as a former student and as a parent. But of much greater significance, Fort Drum now has the opportunity to partner with our school districts to stimulate learning and growth of children throughout the North Country."

There are currently 82 DoD STARBASE locations in 35 states and two territories. Fort Drum is the only STARBASE site in New York state.

Zacchino said that the Fort Drum STARBASE Academy is ideally located close to simulation facilities where military and civilian volunteers can apply abstract principles to real-world situations and provide students with a better understanding of STEM disciplines and career fields.

He noted the various vehicle and medical simulators that are walking distance from the STARBASE Academy and the flight simulators only a short ride away at Wheeler-Sack Army Airfield. Additionally, the Light Fighters School, military working dog kennels, LeRay Mansion and the 10th Mountain Division and Fort Drum Museum all have opportunities for learning.

"In essence, the STARBASE Academy is positioned within our academic corner of Fort Drum," Zacchino said. "These are facilities and resources accessible to STARBASE Academy."

Michael O'Toole, Civil-Military Programs director with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Manpower and Reserve Affairs, said that STARBASE Academy is a program that can potentially change the future for thousands of students.

"It's quite evident that this program builds on a positive youth development model, and it includes a wide array of activities designed to strengthen our young people's preparedness for higher learning," he said. "However, the work is never over. We need to continue to build better connections to meet the needs of our children and further the goals of education, all the while creating and maintaining effective school and community partnerships."

O'Toole said that the DoD STARBASE Academy was officially authorized by Congress in 1993, and since then, more than 1.5 million children have received STEM education.

More than 40 students from the Watertown City School District received 25 hours of instruction over five days this week, with a mix of classroom, science lab and outdoor activities.

The first group of STEM students departed the academy shortly before the ribbon-cutting ceremony commenced, waving goodbye to the STARBASE staff.

"We had a lot of kids who were super-excited and didn't want to leave us," said Dana Hanni, one of the STARBASE program instructors. "They were so excited about being here and learning something every day."

One student, before getting on the school bus after graduation, shouted, "STARBASE rocks!"

Hanni spoke with a student who wasn't looking forward to graduation because it meant that she wouldn't be coming back next week.

"It was heart-wrenching for me, but at the same time it's amazing because I am touching a kid's life in a short period of five days," she said.

"This morning when the kids got here, they were walking off the bus and handing me cards," Hanni added. "I told them, right off the bat, I cannot read these cards right now because they're going to make me cry. It was very touching."

For more information about DoD STARBASE, visit To read more about the Fort Drum STARBASE Academy, visit