1st AOPA HS Curriculum Grads, Coordination Needed with Education Programs

By Kathryn B. Creedy

With the first cohort of AOPA You Can Fly High School Aviation STEM Curriculum about to graduate in 2021, it is clear the program is making a difference in everything from school attendance to increasing the diversity of the industry.

Do you drone? Hereford High AOPA STEM program Credit: AOPA

But You Can Fly is only one of many resources available to teachers including the Civil Air Patrol (CAP), Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA), the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and an impressive Redbird Flight Simulations program. Combined, these resources offer an impressive array in moving the needle in workforce development programs. They can also be fielded in nearly every community since these organizations leverage their vast membership networks to market their programs either in the classroom or at their airport facilities.

What is needed is not the development of more programs but the coordination of those programs into a cohesive national effort to connect the dots between education, aviation and workforce development programs.

“We say the more the merrier,” said You Can Fly Executive Director Elizabeth Tennyson of all the emerging programs geared to aviation education. “I would love for us to be more coordinated, however. We already encourage people using our program to expand their horizons and explore other programs out there. But I think we need something more formal and, frankly, more effective, in place.”

She sees this as the role for the National Center for the Advancement of Aviation (NCAA) proposed by senators Jim Inhofe (R-OK) and Tammy Duckworth (D-IL). Operated as a private entity and funded from the Airport & Airways Trust Fund, NCAA is intended to support the development of aviation STEM programs. More importantly, its role would be distribution of aviation/aerospace STEM programming as well as connecting the dots between education and workforce development. It would also disseminate economic and safety data as well as research and provide a forum for the cross-disciplinary collaboration needed to develop the interdisciplinary workforce of the future academicians and industry say is needed.

You Can Fly

“AOPA’s You Can Fly program is all about lowering barriers to entry,” Tennyson told Future Aviation/Aerospace Workforce News. “It is not just about the students, it’s also about the teachers. We want to make sure they are confident in teaching the material.” 

You Can Fly Executive Director Elizabeth Tennyson. Credit: AOPA

The AOPA curriculum is in more than 200 schools with 255 teachers overseeing 540 classes in 38 states. Having reached 8,000 students to date, You Can Fly and other programs could not be more meaningful for priming the pipeline for the future aviation/aerospace workforce.

“We reach out to educators through events like our annual High School Symposium, as well as educational conferences and events,” Tennyson explained. “We target conferences that focus on career and technical education and STEM education. We also get a lot of calls from schools, districts, and even state aviation departments who have heard about the program and are interested in bringing it into schools in their area. We regularly meet with these different groups and help them learn more about what we offer, make presentations to decision makers and show them how the curriculum aligns to their own state and local education standards.”

The High School Curriculum is designed so graduates leave high school with either a private pilot or a drone license. Entirely funded by The AOPA Foundation, the program includes professional development programs, designed to help teachers teach the curriculum more effectively, and, last summer, had 300 teachers enrolled in its virtual event.

“We also provide 20 $10,000 scholarships each year to help teachers earn a private pilot license,” said Tennyson. “That gives them first-hand experience. When they have that they light up the classroom and become role models for their students. They come away feeling confident they are making a difference with the kids.”

She explained the value of the program. “Some schools have difficulty getting kids just to show up and this program has made a huge difference,” she said. “Teachers tell us they arrive and the kids are waiting outside the classroom anxious to begin. It can be a real turning point for a youngster to discover they like school. Teachers tell us that it sounds like a party every day as the kids develop competitions and cheer each other on.”


The demographics of both schools and students are a testament to the difference You Can Fly can make. Eighty-four percent of schools are public with another 5% charter schools. Some 10% are private and another 1% from the home-schooling arena. Thirty-nine percent are in rural areas and 39% in suburban areas while 23% are in urban areas.

Key to the program is being free with The AOPA Foundation supplying everything needed along with support for teachers and the school to implement the program.

“Small districts are delighted they have access to this programming,” said Tennyson, adding a prime target audience is underserved communities. “They are able to do this without significant resources. That is important because 22% of the schools using this program are considered high-poverty schools. If you add schools that are considered mid-to-high poverty, that equals about 45%.”

Source: Unsplash

As for the kids, 56% have no previous experience with aviation. Saying only 10.6% of pilots and flight engineers were people of color, Tennyson noted nearly 50% of the students in You Can Fly are people of color. Twenty percent are female which may move the needle when it comes to the fact only 5.6% of commercial pilots are women.

This is critical since studies show that girls begin to drop out of STEM-related courses in middle school and children of color in high school. That makes AOPA’s program important as a bridge during these vulnerable years for kids who become involved at a younger age through such programs as CAP’s cadet program which starts at age 12 and EAA’s course work for younger kids.

“Teachers tell us that they capture kids in the 9th grade, and they are hooked and stay with the program,” said Tennyson. “It is opening a door and welcoming them in for the first time. We felt high school was the place to start because that is when students begin taking concrete steps for their future. If you open the door and make it accessible, a lot of students will follow because they realize aviation is fun. We can’t overlook that point when we are recruiting. It doesn’t have to be intimidating, it can be fun.”

Tennyson reported there were a lot of misconceptions about aviation. For instance, people think the only pathway is through the military or that you have to be great a math to be a pilot.

A lot of hot air. Hereford High’s AOPA You Can Fly Program. Credit: AOPA

“That is not true,” she said. “What we are offering here is a way for students to learn those misconceptions are not true. They end up building hot air balloons, wind tunnels and airfoils they then test in the wind tunnels.”

Identifying the Gap

For years, the industry has been worried about workforce shortages and in 2016, the AOPA Foundation examined the resources available to connect the dots between aviation and STEM education.

“When we started developing the program in 2016, we saw a big gap in this type of education,” said Tennyson. “There was nothing available that was comprehensive for high school age students that could be done during their school day and with which they can earn credits over four years. There were also no turnkey programs that were free. What was available, she said, were science classes using aviation-related programming or elective programs which were not for credit.

“We looked at this very carefully and discovered the majority of schools did not have the resources to prepare their students,” Tennyson continued. “They didn’t have the equipment or a qualified instructor or the lab space. So, we looked at what we could do to get aviation in the hands of the most students.”

The program also needed to ensure schools had the flexibility to fit it in whether as a four-year career & technical education program, a single course, an after-school program or as dual enrollment with partnering colleges. It is also paced to the student reflecting the need for curriculum tailored to how different students learn.

Student Pathway

Complete descriptions of each program semester are available on the You Can Fly website. The 9th grade starts with introduction to aviation, a broader brush stroke of history and careers available today including space, the military, piloting, general aviation, drones, advanced air mobility, maintenance and avionics.

“This allows students to see whatever they are interested in, there is a place for them in aviation,” she said, “In sophomore and junior years, they delve into aircraft systems, airport operations, air traffic control, communications, weather – all the things you need to be a pilot and how the system works. That is germane to any aviation career. Juniors get a deep dive into the FAA private pilot knowledge test or Part 107 for unmanned systems and in the senior year we dive into advanced topics which are a lot more career oriented. They also do a capstone project which could be a business plan, an internship or choosing a subject or a mission or designing and building a drone. One student did a business plan to create an FBO at a local airport. We provide a lot of materials and support so that projects are meaningful and to prepare them in a practical way to move ahead to college, certification or the workforce.”

Other Programs

Today, numerous programs exist. Future Aviation/Aerospace Workforce News recently updated its comprehensive list of education resources for aviation/aerospace and corporate workforce development programs in hopes industry and academia would connect the dots and amplify each other’s efforts.

For instance, in January, EAA launched AeroEducate, targeting age five to 18, complementing the AOPA Foundation program for older students. The idea of the free program is to connect the easy-to-use, aviation-themed activities for teachers and EAA chapters and can be used in classrooms or EAA chapter hangars. Similarly, AOPA leverages its chapters to connect the program to local schools.

AeroEducate also complements EAA’s own Young Eagles program that provides introductory flights for kids to attract them to aviation. The AeroEducate web-based resource provides age-appropriate pathways to aviation and aerospace engagement, as well as career paths.

Celebrating its 80th anniversary this year, CAP, the US Air Force auxiliary, has 60,000 volunteer members and 1,000 squadrons nationwide. Its cadet program, for ages 12 and up, goes beyond aerospace education to developing character and physical fitness.

It also has free resources for teachers, said CAP Outreach Coordinator Susan Mallett, who joined Tennyson in speaking recently before the Women in Aviation International (WAI) Conference Aviation Educators Workshop. CAP’s curriculum is free to educators but there is a $35 CAP membership fee.

Source: Unsplash

“Our K-6 is a special program designed to help kids make connections between aerospace and education,” she said. “These are grade-level specific programs to get young students interested in aviation and aerospace. We focus on character and physical fitness because if we don’t have good people of character and integrity we are lost. We have to develop the entire child before they get into middle school and high school where they can make mistakes that can diminish their chances of pursuing aviation careers.”

At no cost to CAP’s education members, it offers sophisticated STEM Kits providing additional materials such as flight simulators or drones that schools cannot otherwise afford.

The curriculum takes in every facet of aviation including drones, VTOL, weather stations, rocketry, remote control and robotics. It also offers teacher orientation flights from pre-flight briefing to actual flying so they can see how  aviation applies to STEM concepts they are teaching.

The program, funded by USAF, has 76,000 students involved in its Aerospace Connections in Aviation (ACE) program every year. It also has an adopt-a-classroom connecting a particular squadron to a local classroom and mentoring kids move through aviation education.

“Sometimes these kids have a pretty negative experience with people in uniform,” Mallett said. “Our program helps to change that because it presents a positive role model of someone in uniform.”

Going Beyond the Sale

When Redbird Flight Simulations hired Joey Colleran nearly five years ago as its education specialist, it knew it could not just sell its low-cost, desk-top simulators and leave it at that. Without teacher orientation and hands-on guidance, it found many simulators were going unused.

“My job was to focus on the K-16 market – the high school market,” Colleran told WAI attendees. “What I quickly learned was a lot of customers had a grant and their solution was to buy our simulators. But they weren’t pilots and didn’t have a lot of knowledge and resources. I began to figure out free resources for them and ended up developing free curriculum to accompany the simulators. That included flight missions and other lessons related to their math and science curriculum.” 

Women in Aviation Girls in Aviation Day. Credit: Kathryn B. Creedy

Colleran added the company also wanted to ensure they were exposing as many as possible to aviation opportunities and created a traveling STEM lab which it plans to relaunch once Covid is in the rear-view mirror. It is familiar to WAI attendees since it is a central part of its Girls in Aviation Day which wraps up its annual conference.

“We take it to schools and different organizations to recruit kids to take free classes taught by our director of STEM education,” she explained. “It helps parents and students become aware of aviation opportunities.”

Like AOPA, it identified a need for professional development for teachers and created an educating-the-educators program online or in person to illustrate how to incorporate aviation into STEM.

Government Resources

The FAA has its own offerings in its Aviation and Space Education (AvSed) program for teachers bolstered by 1,700 volunteer employees and, like EAA, AOPA and CAP, offering local resources nationwide and on the web.

Its Aviation Career Education (ACE) Academy provides unique summer aviation education programs for elementary, middle and high school students and reaches between 1,500 and 2,000 students each summer. The program, which includes lessons in flight planning, history and flight physics, provides students with a wide range of aviation career exploration experiences and also focuses on STEM. Other subjects cover aircraft design and maintenance, flight simulations and introductory flights on some occasions. It also offers field trips to aviation-related sites.

“Our volunteers cover all walks of aviation and space experience and they love to share that in the classroom and help with curriculum in flying or space,” Christina Drouet, manager of the FAA’s Aviation Workforce and Education Division told the WAI audience.

Like Redbird, Collins Aerospace and others, Indiana-based Republic Airways has its own traveling lab to bring aviation to those who would normally not even think about it. The airline, a pioneer in bringing aviation to the underserved, has been struggling for years with the pilot shortage and finally decided to set up Lift, its own flight academy, for ab initio training. More recently, the dearth of aviation maintenance technicians, prompted it begin work on adding that to the curriculum.

Why Aviation & STEM?

Credit: Airbus

“Aviation is really cool,” Tennyson added during the WAI Aviation Education session. “You cannot find a more engaging subject for students. Students who think they don’t like math and science do like airplanes and they make the connection. US News & World Report identified piloting as number 26 in the top 100 careers in the future. In addition, there are all kinds of emerging careers such as commercial space, unmanned systems and drones and we don’t even know the potential for those yet. You will see the reward in your classroom. An engaged student makes your job so much easier.” 

Drouet agreed. “Emerging technologies are a big unknown,” she said. “To show the interest, today, the number of conventional aircraft in the US is about 300,000 but since we began registering drones a few years ago we have two million registered. To me, that is symbolic of how these emerging technologies will keep growing and why we need kids to think about these careers now. It’s exciting and there is so much opportunity.”

Because aviation and aerospace are awesome, Colleran added. “It’s important to have aviation in the curriculum because it’s the future,” she said. “The one important thing for educators to understand is how many free resources there are including the thousands of people in aviation and aerospace who want to help teachers in the classroom. When you bring aerospace in the classroom, you have so many resources at your fingertips.”

Credit: Joby Aviation

Next Steps

Tennyson wants more people involved. “That is why we support the NCAA,” she said. “All the stakeholders need to be at the same table to work together on these issues, identify the gaps that may still exist and fill them in a cohesive way. Ultimately, these are workforce issues as well as education and working together we will be creating the workforce of the future. Awareness is a huge part of it. You can’t create something successful if people are not aware of the opportunities and the needs in the industry.”

Creating an over-arching, industry-wide strategic plan is probably the biggest hurdle industry must overcome besides funding.  You Can Fly is completely funded by The AOPA Foundation but to amplify it and get it into more schools, more funding is needed; likewise for all the other programs.

“Curriculum development is an intense and costly undertaking,” Tennyson explained. “We created a turnkey program of lesson plans, presentations, student activities, teacher notes and unit tests and we have been able to do that through the generosity of our donors. But we also must continuously update and maintain the curriculum and activities as rules and technology changes. We must stay on top of that and adjust and that requires a lot of support for schools. We must contend with high teacher turnover and need more professional development and support during the year. Schools may need help developing the data so there is a lot of hands-on support that goes into every school we work with. To expand, we’d have to provide that same level of support. This is one of our greatest challenges – making sure teachers have the right skills, material and support. For all those reasons, we need something that is formalized. We need support on a broad basis in order to support the great programs out there.”

Cue the Legislators

Having introduced the National Center for the Advancement of Aviation (NCAA), the industry now needs to leverage members to make it a reality just as Aviation Technical Education Council did with transforming Part 147 and Aeronautical Repair Station Association did with the creation of annual $10 million in education grants designed to promote pilot, engineering and aviation maintenance careers.

Then the only remaining hurdle is a formalized approach to alerting parents and students solid programming exists and can be implemented in their local community for free; programming that leads to high-pay, high-value careers. This is no small task but with the advent of the Youth Access to American Jobs in Aviation Task Force and the Women in Aviation Advisory Board it is clear the industry is now working together which makes the task that much easier.

Published by Kathryn B. Creedy

Kathryn B. Creedy is a veteran aviation journalist and communications strategist. My byline has appeared in CNN Travel, The Points Guy, BBC Capital, Los Angeles Times, Forbes Online, The Washington Post, Flyer Talk, Business Traveler, Business Travel Executive, Afar, Flightglobal, Centre for Aviation, Aviation Week & Space Technology, Low Fare & Regional Airlines, Inflight, Business Airports International, Airports, Centerlines, Regional Gateway, Runway Girl Network and Metropolitan Airport News among others. In 2018, I was cited for the Sapphire Pegasus Business Aviation Award for her work as a business aviation journalist. Created four newsletters, including two web publications Author: Time Flies - The History of SkyWest Airlines. Consistently received bonuses or commendations throughout my career. Founded Commuter/Regional Airline News, building it to become the bible of the industry. Co-founded C/R Airline News International to cover Europe. Founding editor of Aviation Today's Daily Brief, VLJ Report. Founding Senior Analyst North America for Centre for Aviation and North American Editor for Low Fare & Regional Airlines and Inflight. Key Words: Aviation, travel, business jets, commercial, aircraft, airlines, publishing, public relations, corporate communications, media specialist,

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