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Kids build airplanes in OregonOregon program introduces kids to aviation, STEM

Hands-on approach to STEM

When a brand new Van’s RV-12 airplane shows up among the aircraft-for-sale listings this summer, it will mark the fourth time in eight years that students in a Portland, Oregon-area program for aviation education have sent an aircraft of their own manufacture out into the general aviation fleet.
  • RV-12 forward fuselage final assembly.
  • RV-12 cockpit assembly.
  • Jackie Murphy, executive director of the ASK program, with the RV-12 forward fuselage during final assembly. Photos by Warren Hendrickson.
  • RV-12 horizontal stabilizer assembly.
  • The ASK training and building facility at Hillsboro Airport is dedicated to Swede Ralston.
  • The ASK program has about a dozen desktop flight simulators.
  • RV-12 aft fuselage final assembly.

The kitplane’s builders, age 14 and older, get the job done while learning life lessons about hard work, discipline, and teamwork, through the TeenFlight program of Airway Science for Kids, a nonprofit founded in 1992. The organization’s mission is to connect youth, especially those facing social or economic challenges, with “activities that inspire their interest and growth toward higher learning and careers in aerospace, science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).” 

Last year, a two-place RV-12 produced by TeenFlight’s builders who worked Saturdays at Airway Science for Kids’ center at Portland’s Hillsboro Airport was bought—for $85,000—by a pilot in New Zealand. The sale, said the organization in its 2015 annual report, confirmed that “we’ve officially spread our wings internationally.”

The Auckland-bound aircraft was the second sold to a private owner by Airway Science for Kids. The first aircraft built under the TeenFlight program was put to use as the organization’s demonstrator model.

Proceeds from each sale help fund construction of the next kit and support Airway Science for Kids’ other programs. Beyond that, the eight-year-old TeenFlight program is supporting its participants’ efforts to explore STEM-industry career paths many might never would have otherwise imagined, said Jackie Murphy, ASK’s executive director.

Murphy recently showed Warren Hendrickson, AOPA Northwest Mountain regional manager, around the Airway Science for Kids aircraft-building facility. Afterward, he expressed his admiration for the “superb support” the organization enjoys from volunteers and mentors, and praised its work introducing aviation and STEM to students “at all levels of education.”

“Incorporating aviation into STEM programs is one key to getting more youth involved in the industry,” he said.

A demographic cross-section of participants in TeenFlight, and Airway Science for Kids’ new mobile TakeFlight program for elementary-schoolers, and the “cadets” in the after-school Inflight education program for middle school and high school students, illustrates how the organization is making an impact where opportunity has been scarce.

According to the 2015 annual report, which noted donor support reaching “new heights," 80 percent of program participants are from low-income families; 69 percent are children of color; 30 percent are female. What they all have in common is the chance to acquire an affinity for math and science learning by venturing into the unfamiliar and once presumably inaccessible world of aviation.

Then, some serious networking within the aviation community becomes possible. For example, the kitplane builders can tap as a resource Airway Science for Kids board member Richard VanGrunsven, whose company, Van’s Aircraft, produces the RV-12.

“Dick is one of our major mentors,” Murphy said, noting that VanGrunsven came to the organization eight years ago, interested in seeing whether building airplanes would appeal to high school students, and therefore help expand the ranks of aviation hobbyists.

“We honor him back and build the planes that he designed,” Murphy said.

An alumnus of Airway Science for Kids is Portland-area business executive Johnell M. Bell, now the organization’s president, who had participated in programs beginning in middle school. The young people of north and northeast Portland served by the programs are considered by some to be “at risk,” but Bell prefers to regard them as “at promise,” he said in this 2015 video interview. 

If Airway Science for Kids can “instill in them the love of learning through flight,” Bell said, it can help increase the number of girls and children of color entering STEM-related industries.

In keeping with ASK’s aircraft construction activities, each year, a group of program participants travel to Oshkosh, Wisconsin, to attend EAA AirVenture, Bell said, adding that some students have gone on to train as pilots, intending to help those who follow them in the programs find a home in aviation’s family.

Dan Namowitz

Dan Namowitz

Associate Editor Web
Associate Editor Web Dan Namowitz has been writing for AOPA in a variety of capacities since 1991. He has been a flight instructor since 1990 and is a 30-year AOPA member.
Topics: Experimental, Light Sport Aircraft, Single Engine

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