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High school aviation STEM draws crowd

AOPA You Can Fly symposium connects educators, industry

Together in person for the first time since 2019, more than 400 educators and industry leaders converged on Memphis, Tennessee, to get fired up about aeronautics in the classroom at the eighth annual AOPA You Can Fly High School Aviation STEM Symposium.

  • Natalie Golasa of Brooklyn, New York, tries out a flat-panel flight simulator during a field trip to FedEx headquarters during the AOPA High School Aviation STEM Symposium in Memphis, Tennessee, November 14. Photo by David Tulis.
  • Educators took in presentations by professional pilots and airline recruiters during the AOPA High School Aviation STEM Symposium. Photo by David Tulis.
  • Educator Caleb Arnsman of Lewiston, Missouri, visits the exhibit area during the AOPA High School Aviation STEM Symposium. Photo by David Tulis.
  • Pitsco Education's Ronnie Thomas assists principal Kelly Lam of Wisconsin with her first drone flight. Photo by David Tulis.
  • Brett Watts of True Course Simulations assists principal Kelly Lam of Wisconsin with her first-ever virtual reality assisted simulator flight. Photo by David Tulis.
  • New York City educator Raymond Gonzalez, a student pilot, is coached by Redbird's Harvey Madison. Photo by David Tulis.
  • KJ Tabisola views the aircraft history during a field trip to FedEx headquarters. Photo by David Tulis.
  • FedEx pilot Anthony Glenn addresses an audience of education professionals at the AOPA High School Aviation STEM Symposium. Photo by David Tulis.
  • Host and United Airlines first officer Swayne Martin addressed the audience. Photo by David Tulis.
  • High school educators heard from aviation professionals about the surging demand for pilots, and related transportation careers. Photo by David Tulis.
  • AOPA Foundation Senior Vice President Elizabeth Tennyson welcomed high school teachers and administrators to the AOPA High School Aviation STEM Symposium. Photo by David Tulis.
  • Samola Tate of the Bronx, New York, captures a keepsake image during a tour of FedEx headquarters in Memphis, Tennessee. Photo by David Tulis.
  • AOPA President Mark Baker addressed AOPA High School Aviation STEM Symposium participants. Photo by David Tulis.
  • A life raft was among the many tangible aviation teaching aids on display at FedEx headquarters during the AOPA High School Aviation STEM Symposium. Photo by David Tulis.
  • Attendees dig in during a social hour at the AOPA High School Aviation STEM Symposium. Photo by David Tulis.
  • Everyone had a chance to try out a flight simulator during the AOPA High School Aviation STEM Symposium. Photo by David Tulis.
  • Space Camp's Kay Taylor and Robin Soprano participate in the You Can Fly Experience during the AOPA High School Aviation STEM Symposium. Photo by David Tulis.

The pent-up excitement was palpable at the historic Peabody in downtown Memphis—filling the hotel to capacity. Teachers and school administrators from around the United States found great value in being a part of the three-day immersion. Raymond D. “Dr. G” Gonzalez is the iSTEAM coordinator and a science teacher at Fordham Preparatory School in the Bronx, New York. He sees the event as a way to help his students get plugged into the future needs of the aviation and aerospace community.

“You really make the bridge between classroom instruction and future industry. This was a dream come true to come here,” said Gonzalez, who is a student pilot and AOPA high shool teacher flight training scholarship recipient. Gonzalez is also a very active flight simmer. One highlight of his trip to the symposium was getting to tour the FedEx facility and getting to see the company’s large full flight simulators. The hardware, though, is not as important to him as the industry leaders who visited with attendees.

“The opportunity to collaborate, to have different experiences, to see how if we implement this curriculum, it can positively impact not only our students' futures, but the aviation industry in general,” he said.

The symposium also drew some famous faces. YouTuber and airline pilot Swayne Martin served as host of the event. Travel media personality and pilot Kellee Edwards was the keynote speaker at Tuesday morning’s general session. Edwards told the story of discovering that general aviation existed while waiting on the ramp in an airliner at a California airport and seeing a pilot do pattern work in between airline operations.

Her journey into aviation began shortly after with an introductory flight at Whiteman Airport in Los Angeles. In her uplifting, multimedia presentation to the packed room she said that she lives by one rule: Nothing is impossible. “Impossible does not belong in my vocabulary, it does not belong in anyone around me’s vocabulary. They know if you hang out with me, we’re going to do all the things—whether we fail or not,” she told the crowd. Edwards repurposes the letters to be a motivational I’m possible as a mantra.

For AOPA leaders, the event created to provide a mix of professional development and inspiration has helped the high school program grow from 29 schools across 17 states in the 2017–2018 school year to more than 400 schools serving 15,000 students. The curriculum, supported by the AOPA Foundation, is offered at no cost to educators who complete an application process.

While the virtual versions of the annual symposium held in 2020 and 2021 produced their share of enthusiasm, everybody was happy to get back together again.

“The energy is so high. We’ve got people who are brand-new, and people who have been using the curriculum for years. They are all excited to be here and see resources,” said Elizabeth Tennyson, senior vice president of the AOPA Foundation.

The location was well received. The Peabody is billed as “The South’s Grand Hotel” and is famous for its ducks, mallards that are ceremoniously marched to and from the hotel’s lobby fountain each day. The ducks take an elevator ride to the “duck palace” habitat on the top of the building. “It's really neat to see,” Martin quipped.

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

Sierra Harrop

Sierra Harrop

Producer/Videojournalist—AOPA Live®
Sierra Harrop has been an AOPA Live producer/videojournalist since 2012. She is a private pilot with a tailwheel endorsement who is currently working on her instrument rating and commercial pilot certificate.
Topics: You Can Fly, Aviation Education Programs, Training and Safety

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