I don’t know how much you learned about aviation in high school, but in my day the answer was “not much.” I can vaguely recall learning some rudimentary aerodynamics in physics class—lift, thrust, drag. But that was as far as my aviation education went until I started flight training. Today high schools are placing a big emphasis on STEM programs—science, technology, engineering, and mathematics—and schools are adopting STEM curricula to help prepare the next generation of our workforce for an increasingly technical world.
That’s great news for the future of flying. Aviation is a perfect fit for STEM, and a great way to help young people discover all the fun and excitement of aviation. That’s why we’ve created the AOPA High School Aviation Initiative—a brand-new program that takes a three-tier approach to strengthening aviation education in high school STEM programs.
To make sure we get this right, we’ve formed a steering committee that includes well-respected leaders from across a broad spectrum of aviation and aerospace. Our members include aeronautical science professors, the FAA’s national STEM program manager, the presidents and CEOs of aviation education institutions, airline representatives, aviation university and high school leaders, and astronauts.
Building a steering committee was a critical early step, but we actually started this effort with extensive research. First we identified more than 180 high schools and education programs nationwide that include aviation as part of STEM-based learning programs. Last fall, we surveyed these schools to better understand their needs and the challenges they face. The answers were consistent. High school aviation program leaders told us their greatest struggles are with funding, resources, time, awareness, location, and logistics. So we began building a program that will address those issues, and that’s where the three-tier approach comes in.
In order to really move the needle for these programs we needed three things: a forum to collect and share information about best practices; a path to help interested students explore aviation career possibilities; and a support program to provide much-needed funding to grow and sustain education programs.
To gather and disseminate information about what works—and what doesn’t—we created the AOPA High School Aviation Leadership Alliance. It’s a group of high school principals, program leaders, school superintendents, and guidance counselors who will share innovations, ideas, and best practices for incorporating aviation education into STEM programs. We’ll be holding our first meeting November 9 at the Central Florida Aerospace Academy in Lakeland, Florida.
To help students discover career opportunities, we’re considering creating a national aviation career club. The idea is to expose students to the types of careers available in aviation, and ultimately to work with the aviation industry to create a pipeline of motivated and engaged candidates for jobs in engineering, piloting, manufacturing, and more. Like Future Farmers of America or Junior Achievement, the career club will be a way for students to gain exposure to the real world of working in aviation while they take part in meaningful learning opportunities beyond the classroom. To make the experience even more meaningful, career club chapters will select members of a teen leadership board who will spend a week in the summer at AOPA headquarters. They’ll get plenty of opportunities to learn more about aviation with visits to places such as FAA headquarters, Capitol Hill, and the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum.
And to address the biggest challenge of all, we’re building a booster program that will help to provide the funds aviation STEM programs need to deliver top-quality educational experiences. Our boosters will help provide start-up grants to launch new aviation studies programs in high schools, sustainability grants for existing programs, flight training scholarships for teachers and students, money to purchase equipment such as flight simulators, and more. The boosters will also provide support in the form of “teach the teachers” workshops to help high school science teachers better understand aviation, support for local fundraising efforts, and a sample aviation curriculum that can serve as a starting point for aviation STEM education.
I am excited about this program and the possibilities it represents for growing the pilot population and preparing young people for aviation careers. There’s no magic bullet that will reverse decades of declining pilot numbers, but we’re committed to welcoming more people into aviation, and the AOPA High School Aviation Initiative is one more way we’re acting on that commitment.
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AOPA President Mark Baker began flying lessons as a teenager and became an aircraft owner while still in college.