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Lively AOPA High School Aviation STEM Symposium engages educators during virtual presentation

The sixth annual AOPA High School Aviation STEM Symposium presented as a livestream by the U.S. Air Force was as engaging and informative online as it has been during in-person sessions. The sharing of ideas, information, and teaching tips flew by at a torrid pace during the 1.5-hour presentation.

The appetite for aviation learning and accompanying careers has grown exponentially in the years since the AOPA You Can Fly High School Initiative began, despite a recent commercial air travel slowdown brought on by the coronavirus pandemic.

The yearly gathering of science, technology, engineering, and math teaching specialists helps highlight an engaging curriculum for young people that spans ninth through twelfth grade with hands-on projects that make learning fun and interesting.

“It’s feeling really good here,” said AOPA High School Aviation Initiative Director Glenn Ponas moments before the presentation began. More than 950 people attended the virtual event, which included sessions presented by aviation STEM education leaders and professional pilots. Several schools held virtual watch parties with teachers, students, administrators, and parents sharing the experience. The focus was on tools and strategies to help teachers and administrators implement and grow an effective aviation STEM program.

The AOPA curriculum is available free of charge to school systems nationwide and has been deployed in more than 400 classrooms at more than 200 schools in 38 states, shaping the lessons taught to about 8,000 students. One of the hallmarks of the initiative is broadening the demographics of those exposed to aviation to help diversify the pilot population. Between 22 and 23 percent of the high school aviation STEM students are female compared to about 7.5 percent of females working as career pilots in the United States.

Interactive chats began the moment the program went live and continued throughout the presentation hosted by Swayne Martin, a professional pilot with a massive internet following.

Math and aviation teacher James McMullen checked in from Har-Ber High School, in Springdale, Arkansas, as “the first school in Arkansas to adopt and teach the AOPA curriculum to our students in August.” Stefanie Tweedy of Ada Junior High School in Ada, Oklahoma, posted encouragement to others, as did aerospace teacher Anthony McGovern from Quartz Hill, California, and dozens more.

Nancy McGee of the Commemorative Air Force wrote that she was “in the house” and went on to pledge “100 percent support for the AOPA High School STEM curriculum.” She shouted out a “thanks” to AOPA You Can Fly Executive Director Elizabeth Tennyson and AOPA President Mark Baker “for making this happen for kids!”

Baker welcomed hundreds of online participants and said he is remaining focused on preparing young people for aviation careers despite temporary setbacks that might not always allow a “straight line” to a full-time job. Baker encouraged instructors and their students to stay the course and predicted aviation careers would remain strong in the months and years ahead.

Martin shared his passion for aviation and deftly danced between prerecorded sessions, live video, and moderating chats. When the topic of financial assistance was raised, Martin reminded students and teachers that they can apply for over $1 million in AOPA scholarships when applications open on December 1.

Aviation proponent and teacher Carla Ladner experienced a scholarship opportunity firsthand. In 2019 the Lufkin, Texas, educator was awarded an AOPA flight training scholarship to finish her private pilot certificate. She previously told AOPA that she “never knew how much fun aviation could be” and praised the high school curriculum as a “very successful teaching tool” during the symposium chat session. The algebra teacher pointed out that her school will soon have “15 students taking their FAA Part 107 [remote pilot certificate] test.”

Flight test engineer and presenter Chris Liebman encouraged participants to seek out a professional with similar interests who can act as a coach and as a guide. “Find people who are doing what you’re doing and talk to them. Find out what their path was,” and follow their footsteps, he suggested. “One of the best things you can do is to find a mentor.”

Student Elexis Martin, a junior at Ohio’s Steubenville High School, praised mentorship from pilot and aviation teacher Natalie Campana to help guide her toward an aviation career. When she was younger, Elexis Martin said she didn’t consider being a “pilot at all.” After-school flights in a small aircraft enlightened and encouraged the teen to look outside the box. “I stuck with it and I’m grateful that I did. I just knew that’s what I wanted to be,” she said during an emotional video segment.

AOPA Vice President of Inclusion and Diversity LaKisha Partman moderated a discussion about broadening the pilot ranks through diversity and inclusivity. Women in Aviation International CEO Allison McKay, UPS Vice President of Flight Operations and Safety Capt. Houston Mills, and Organization of Black Aerospace Professionals Board Chair Vanessa Blacknall-Jamison joined the discussion. Blacknall-Jamison reminded participants that they should look inside themselves for inspiration, perseverance, and self-assurance. “Mentorship is vital, but you have to believe in yourself [and] have faith. Believe in yourself and you are capable of doing anything. The sky is the limit.”

The next AOPA High School STEM Aviation Symposium is planned for November 14 through 16, 2021, in Orlando, Florida.

The You Can Fly program and the Air Safety Institute are funded by charitable donations to the AOPA Foundation, a 501(c)(3) organization. To be a part of the solution, visit

David Tulis

David Tulis

Senior Photographer
Senior Photographer David Tulis joined AOPA in 2015 and is a private pilot with single-engine land and sea ratings and a tailwheel endorsement. He is also a certificated remote pilot and co-host of the award-wining AOPA Hangar Talk podcast. David enjoys vintage aircraft ad photography.
Topics: You Can Fly, Aviation Industry, Career

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