STEM on the Air Show Ramp: “Missionizing” our Events to Promote and Support Education

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A new trend is sweeping across the air show industry. More and more air shows are partnering with their local school districts to sharpen their focus on science education. As school districts add curricula to enhance science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), they are finding that not only are air shows willing participants, they are discovering that shows are aggressively taking STEM education to an entirely new level.

“This is one of the best ways I know to really make a difference,” said California Capital AirShow Executive Director Darcy Brewer. Like most air shows of its size, her show includes an area for kids, and, though it wasn’t called STEM in the beginning, she says they have been emphasizing STEM topics almost from the beginning. “We don’t do bounce houses. Our focus is to provide meaningful education,” she said.

Brewer says it’s a show within a show, and it’s a show they do all year around. “School budgets in our area have been cut so much that we are helping to pick up the pieces by focusing on at-risk kids and using the power and magic of flight to help these kids reach new heights (pun intended). We show them how ingenuity and innovation have changed the world,” she said.

Their program brings kids from surrounding high schools to the airport twice a month. Like kids in most other cities, many of those living in the Sacramento area know little about what goes on at an airport. “We have 75 kids a day come here on field trips where they can meet medivac pilots, law enforcement pilots, fuel farm workers, and other airport tenants who provide a variety of services to our community. They can find out firsthand what professional opportunities are open to them,” Brewer said.

In 2016, her show held a STEM expo with the Blue Angels and one of the show’s featured civilian performers. Three hundred kids came out to hear pilots explain their journey to the cockpit. Other offerings have included sessions with NASA Chief Scientist Albion Bowers, who talked about NASA’s advanced aeronautical designs and their scientific research and space exploration. Another session featured talks with pilots and a tour of the Goodyear blimp.

They also host an annual “Positive Altitude” youth event, but it isn’t just about aviation or the thrill of flying. “This event is about the opportunities that lie ahead if these young people are given the tools to succeed. They get to meet some awesome people who can help show them the way,” Brewer said. She notes that half the battle is exposing children to life beyond their neighborhoods. “This annual event has inspired kids to strive for a better life, informed them about STEM careers and scholarships, and encouraged them to reach for the stars,” she said.

Brewer is rightfully proud of the effort. “One of our former scholarship recipients is now working for NASA on the International Space Station program,” she said.

Like many other shows, Brewer said they award scholarships to kids who otherwise couldn’t afford to go to college. They also offer internships which include guidance on how to apply for other scholarships.

The NAS Oceana Air Show in Virginia Beach, Virginia is pioneering another approach to STEM education. Last year, for the first time, they partnered with the Virginia Beach Public School System to bring the district’s entire fifth grade class to the airport on the day before their air show. It was only the third day of school, yet the district bused more than 5,000 kids and 1,200 teachers and chaperones to the base because they believed in what the air show was offering.

“U.S. students recently finished 27th in math and 20th in science in the ranking of 34 countries.  Both NAS Oceana and the school district saw a stunning opportunity to work together. We collected a host of STEM displays to highlight opportunities in those critical areas of study,” said Richard “Corky” Erie, who runs the NAS Oceana show. 

It was the school district that decided to send fifth graders, according to Erie, because — by the time most kids get to high school — they already have an idea of what is out there and what they want to do with their lives. Fifth graders generally have no idea what is available to them or how to get there.

“We don’t focus exclusively on aviation,” Erie said. “Our goal is to expose kids to a broad range of science and engineering options and the natural outcome will benefit society at large,” he said.

Students come to NAS Oceana for air show rehearsal day on Friday before the show. The show brings in speakers and demonstrations for two hours, and then the kids are in the bleachers by 3:45 p.m. to watch the Blue Angels rehearsal show. Then, throughout the school year, as new topics are introduced in classroom work, students will recall what they learned at the base. And if they come up with specific questions that teachers can’t answer or want additional help, Erie said they will send experts to the classroom to work with the students to answer their questions. “We know that if the air show industry embraces the concept, we can move the needle,” he said.

This new direction for the NAS Oceana show has generated a lot of excitement in the community, and Erie said fourth graders are already anticipating it next year. It is becoming a seamless element of the show, and is allowing the show to leverage expanded participation by sponsors.

The shift is also impacting how the show selects its performers. “Kids see jet aircraft all the time because they live near the base, but — outside the air show — they never get to talk to high performance aerobatic pilots. Many air show performers are excited to talk to kids and we want the kids to be excited to talk to them. Performers can be alluring to kids and — if I have to choose between two performers — I’m going to go with the one who I know can relate to kids.  They can trip a kid’s curiosity switch,” Erie said.

The SUN ‘n FUN Fly-In and Expo in Lakeland, Florida has taken STEM to yet another level.  Thanks to a wealthy benefactor, the show established its own STEM high school that serves 350 students. They also created the Aerospace Center for Excellence. The school, along with a summer day camp, are part of a new business model that changed SUN ‘n FUN from a spring break for pilots to a financially solvent education initiative that still includes the fly-in and air show, but with a new mission.

“We were on the brink of bankruptcy and knew that — if we were to survive — we had to have a new mission. Our mission now is to preserve and enhance the future of flight, through world class events, while inspiring and educating people of all ages,” said SUN ‘n FUN President and CEO John Leenhouts. He says SUN ‘n FUN is now the world’s largest fundraiser for the future of flight. “Five years ago, we were in debt almost three million dollars. Today, we are debt free, due in part to generous donations as well as revamping how we spend our money,” Leenhouts said.

The high school, once built, was turned over to the county education system and is staffed with certified teachers. While having a STEM focus, it includes a broad curriculum, and Leenhouts said the entire project has turned around a somewhat hostile community. “We used to operate one week a year, which wreaked havoc on our community and created significant traffic snarls the community didn’t appreciate. Now, we have made our event a significant asset to the community, and have — in the process — turned it into a $175 million direct and indirect economic benefit,” Leenhouts said. And in so doing, they turn out highly educated young men and women who are motivated to pursue their education.

“We require a 2.75 grade point average (GPA) to get into the program and students must maintain or exceed that GPA through high school or they are out,” said Leenhouts. He said peer pressure to succeed is high and it works.

In addition to academic instruction, they offer glider ratings and private pilot ratings, plus Airframe & Powerplant (A&P) ratings. And for those students who can’t afford it, Leenhouts said scholarships are available. “We accept every student who wants into our high school and we will do all we can to help them reach their goals,” he said. He noted that every student who graduates with an A&P rating has a job waiting for them. “The airlines are looking at us. They know we have high quality students who can do the job.”

Another aspect of their education initiative is the annual STEMtastic summer day camp where kids spend a week learning about flight orientation, flight planning, navigation, and a host of other topics. They can accommodate up to 24 kids in a week-long resident camp. “This has grown into a big deal in our community. Kids are signing up earlier than ever before. We have certified teachers and retired teachers to run our programs and they are also available to go to schools outside of our area. During the school year, we provide lesson plans for each month of school and are now working with 70 teachers across the state from grade school through high school,” Leenhouts said.

At the Los Angeles County Air Show in Lancaster, California, they have their own take on STEM.    They have a large STEM display area near the main entrance of the show, and — this year — they attracted over 15,000 people through the tents.

Lancaster is 75 miles north of Los Angeles, right outside Edwards Air Force Base. Because of the research and development that takes place at Edwards, the community is blessed with multiple high-tech and cutting edge aviation firms…Boeing, Lockheed, Northrop Grumman among them, all of which can be counted on to bring meaningful displays and staff to the show.

The show’s STEM exhibits chair, Diane Walker, says all of the employers in the area have a huge interest in keeping the workforce development pipeline filled and they see the air show as a viable means of reaching future employees.

Walker’s day job is to oversee the STEM programs in the Lancaster school district where she seeks to increase business and industry engagement with the schools. She also uses her position to ensure there are meaningful STEM exhibits and opportunities at the air show.  “Because of Edwards Air Force Base, our community has been on the cutting edge of aviation research and development for a long time. Our schools already have a heavy concentration of STEM classes, for everything from health care to aviation. We’ve seen an uptick in the number of students pursuing STEM classes and STEM careers in recent years, and — at the air show — we want to do everything we can to support them,” she said.

The air show’s STEM area has large tents that include companies, professional organizations and associations, test pilots, women engineers, aviation explorers, interactive exhibits from Edwards and flight simulators which kids can enjoy. Some of the aviation-related companies have their own tents to show off their projects and also promote high school internships.

In a number of communities, art is being added to the STEM curriculum because art and science go hand in hand. “Our goal is to include a mainstream art component in the air show next year.  We are trying to ensure that art education is strong, be it theater, production, computer graphics or video gaming. Art is a natural marriage with STEM and people don’t always see the connection,” she said.

Another approach to STEM education has developed into a foundation supported by the Patriots Jet Demonstration Team. Team owner, Randy Howell, says the foundation specializes in mentoring youths in aviation career paths, as well as STEM career paths. They run their program in a 10,000 square-foot facility within a hangar complex in the San Francisco Bay area where they have a classroom that can accommodate 24 kids at a time.

“We host introduction to aviation classes, and private pilot ground school classes, plus classes on aerodynamics, jet propulsion, space flight, aircraft systems, and navigation. We have desktop simulators as well as a six-screen simulator that can replicate 23 different types of aircraft,” Howell said. Students are bused in from surrounding high schools for the various instructional sessions and each student also gets two hours of simulator instruction. In addition, instructors go into classrooms each week, often with hands-on projects, to reinforce lessons learned at the training facility. 

The foundation also hosts rocketry competition that lasts four days and annually sees more than 2,000 students participating. “These rockets use compressed air as their fuel and we’ve seen rockets go well over 200 feet into the air,” Howell said. What makes this program somewhat unusual is that students are able to use a wind tunnel and are taught how to calculate drag coefficients so they can make design adjustments and improve rocket performance. The top 100 competitors are invited to the airport to sit in on a Patriots air show briefing. They learn about discipline, about how checklists are used to ensure a safe flight, and are shown how checklists can help bring order to their daily lives.

Their Patriot Foundation goal isn’t to create pilots. Rather, it’s to broaden the learning of the kids who participate. “There are a lot of kids who have no idea what they will do in life. Our goal is to help them figure out what they want and how to get there,” he said. An example is a new robotics project they are launching. It will allow students to develop robots to simulate taking soil samples from a distant planet. Students will construct the robots with the help of professionals in the field, take them out to a remote area in the mountains many miles away, and then operate them from the training facility. “We just received funding for this program and we’re excited to be able to begin our planning. We are going to simulate going to a moon around Saturn to take soil samples, video and still pictures,” Howell said.

ICAS President John Cudahy is excited about the STEM trend within the air show community.  “This is a new wave for our industry and it’s going to continue to be a big deal. It’s a great way to promote aviation as well as technical fields in general. And, as we’ve seen in several communities, it can turn air shows into something more than great entertainment.”

Cudahy said STEM is also important to the air show industry itself because it is attracting a new generation of fans. “Audiences at air shows are getting older and competition for the attention of kids is increasing all the time. Some shows have long used such activities as rock concerts and motorcycle demonstrations to attract a younger audience. We can also use STEM as part of a long-range mission to bring in more kids and a younger demographic,” he said.

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Mike Berriochoa
Mike Berriochoa is an air show announcer, former member of the ICAS Board of Directors, longtime communications professional and award-winning broadcast journalized based in Pasco, Washington.