Kentucky School Advocate
By Matt McCarty
Districts across the state are looking for more STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) opportunities and one program in particular has been all systems go since taking flight six years ago.
In 2009, two Kentucky schools – Frankfort Independent High School and the Academy at Shawnee in Jefferson County Schools – offered aerospace education to their students. A year later, those two schools shared their model with an additional seven districts.
Dr. Tim Smith, who started Frankfort’s aerospace program, founded the nonprofit National Air & Space Education Institute in Louisville in January 2014, and said he now works with close to 50 school districts, mostly from Kentucky, through its Air & Space Academy.
“I think schools are looking for STEM opportunities for their kids and we fit nicely into that as well as through career and technical education. So school districts are looking for that STEM component but they’re also looking for career readiness. And the STEM part helps students get the college readiness part. Of course this is a career pathway approach,” Smith said.
The program is a state-approved career and technical education pathway. The Academy trains teachers/facilitators in each district and delivers the content online.
Students, who can earn up to nine hours of college credit in the program, can pursue one of four options – engineering, manufacturing, operating and maintenance – involving either full-scale aircrafts, unmanned aerial systems or satellites.
“Every student (in the program) gets a core understanding of aeronautics and they get to explore each of the different concentrations of each of the pathways,” Smith said. “Students get to explore a little bit of everything and then they choose the path where the concentration they are the most interested in and go deeper in that area as they go through their high school career. Then we hand them off to the postsecondaries, whether it be technical school or university.”
Ralph Gibbs, Eastern Kentucky University’s director of aviation, says involving students in aerospace career options early in their high school experience could have a lasting impact.
“The demand for pilots is 500,000 over the next 20 years. The demand for mechanics is 550,000 over the next 20 years. From my perspective, even if I personally had 20 years to make a dent in that number at Richmond, I couldn’t even get close,” Gibbs said. “I think the demand is so huge that the more high schools we get engaged in aviation education, the more community colleges, the more students, the more the state of Kentucky will have income being generated as a result of that.
“If the goal is to get our fellow residents employed, investing in aviation is a really good decision.”
The aerospace industry is the largest producer for Kentucky’s gross domestic product, projected to be more than $8 billion this year, according to Smith.
“I really think it’s been a perfect storm with the aerospace manufacturing numbers coming in, we’re a state that is aerospace,” Smith said. “We’ve got two of the three hubs for shipping, and they ship by air and that’s UPS and DHL … so we’ve got a lot of aerospace going on in this state.
“When superintendents and principals see what we do, they really want to do the work. … It’s just been pretty exciting as we’ve been seeing the growth of the work progress over the last five years.”
Knott County Central freshman Keisha Wilson is one of eight students participating in her high school’s aerospace program, which the district started this year. She said even before the program was created at her school, she wanted to go into the Air Force and the program has “opened up opportunities for me to learn about it.”
Teachers at two schools just beginning the program said before they started teaching aerospace they didn’t know how large the aerospace industry is in Kentucky.
“Aerospace engineering is the No. 1 industry in Kentucky and I’m not sure many people are aware of that,” Knott County Central’s aerospace teacher Angela Thornsberry said. “I was not aware of that either until I started this class. I think they just wanted the awareness to be out there for these students that there are jobs out there in their area in regards to aerospace engineering and aviation.”
“It allows for another pathway for students,” said Mason County High School’s aerospace teacher Josh Underwood. “It’s an untapped resource in terms of student interest. They’re learning math, science, writing – they’re learning these things in the context of something that kind of piques their interest. In terms of future-wise, my hope is they continue to pursue either aviation or aerospace once they graduate and can find a job here in the state.
“We’re giving our students a step up above other students because they’re learning about that field now, really give them an idea and if they want to pursue that, they can start now instead of waiting until college or even after college before you’d ever hear about something like this.”
Mason County purchased flight simulators for the program and “the kids have really enjoyed their experience with that,” Underwood said.
“I have some students where it took a few tries (on the simulator) to just get the plane off the ground, then keep it up longer than 10 seconds, but then I have some that they jumped on it and they were weaving some on the runway taking off, but after that they had it up and going,” Underwood said. “I’d say the majority of students, they caught on very quickly.”
Mason County’s aerospace students recently went to the Fleming Mason Airport where a manager and mechanic showed them the basics of airplane mechanics.
“Even if they don’t go on to get their own license, I think it’s such a unique perspective to teach science and math from,” Underwood said. “Even if they don’t want to go on and do something with aviation or aerospace, they’re still learning the math and science in this context. It builds up this enthusiasm, it gives them a stronger interest in that material.”