AEPA To Create National Mosaic of Aviation/Aerospace Education

By Kathryn B. Creedy

If there is one thing aviation and aerospace education needs is wrangling the chaos that is the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of programs across the United States, into cohesive whole, building on one another to plug the gaps between programs. It must lead each student to the next step from kindergarten to a job in aviation, aerospace and defense. 

Tall order? That is the task the Aerospace Education Program Alliance (AEPA) set for itself, in the wake of the two-year Youth Access to Aviation Jobs America Task Force (YIATF). It is designed to bring order out of the chaos that makes up aviation/aerospace education today.

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

It is, in fact, creating an infrastructure the industry has long needed to connect the dots between these disparate efforts by developing a nationwide network of aviation/aerospace programs.

“Our efforts link the formal K-12 to two- and four-year colleges, technical and trade schools as well as the more informal sector now working outside the educational system,” AEPA CEO Ralph Coppola told FAAW News. “We want to bring all of them together to create a mosaic of aviation/aerospace education, each building on the other, connecting their different education levels into a smooth pipeline that ends in an industry job. I’ve been diligently working every week contacting aviation/aerospace education programs. They are all working feverishly across the country, but we need them to connect. They all want to connect. Many already have networks working at the local and regional levels. Now they are connected through AEPA at the national level.”

A few years ago FAAW News created the Resources for Aviation/Aerospace Education and Workforce Development designed to connect the dots between local and corporate programs. But AEPA is going beyond that. Coppola called the resource list a good starting point but since its creation, hundreds of other programs have been developed and he is now working to bring them into to fold.

Equally important is to solve two stubborn problems facing the aviation education community – recruitment (starting at a young age) and retention. This is no easy task and AEPA seeks to destroy the massive roadblocks the industry itself imposes on aspiring pilots, aviation maintenance technicians and engineers. 

Source: Christina Wocintechchat via Unsplash

AEPA is very different from all the previous groups tasked by Congress to address industry problems. Those reports, we bitterly know, usually lie fallow gathering dust once the report is filed. To Congress, the report itself is usually the end, mission accomplished, it is seen to be doing something. Meanwhile, nothing is done, despite the fact Congress knows full well the report itself is just the beginning, not the end.

AEPA wants to change that by having aerospace education programs take action together.

Making Youth Task Force Recommendations Happen

The AEPA’s most daunting task is to help take the recommendations of the Youth Access to Aviation Jobs in America Task Force (YIATF) laid out last year and turn them into reality, and, in this FAA reauthorization year there is much opportunity. AEPA members will be discussing the importance of implementing the recommendations with senators and eventually their counterparts in the House to help bring them to reality.

As a refresher to the Future Aviation/Aerospace Workforce News analysis on the of the task force its herculean recommendations included:

  • Massive increase in funding for education and aviation/aerospace career promotion and education

  • Funding mechanisms including user fees
  • K-12 content creation for libraries, parents, teachers, guidance counselors
  • Development of aviation-related games and social media
  • Launching aviation/aerospace promotion programs as early as possible
  • Single website for all aviation/aerospace related resources and information
  • Dual enrollment programs for simultaneous high school and college
  • Stackable credentialling
  • Mentoring and career coaching from school through career
  • Education reform to address affordability
  • Professional development to teach the teachers about aviation/aerospace careers
  • National and regional advisory committees to develop and oversee efforts
  • Congressional action to raising funding to nationwide effort
  • FAA regulatory reform of aviation-related training programs
  • Industry cultural reform

Task Force Members Take the Lead

Source: Real World Design Challenge

AEPA has, in fact, already put some of these recommendations into action. Leading the effort is former task force member Coppola and his son Jeff, who have made great strides in not only creating this membership program but gathering the impressive constituents that will make the effort successful including high schools, museums, nonprofits and even home school organizations. Other task force members are part of AEPA so check out its growing membership.

AEPA’s goals seek to:

  • Build a connected aerospace education network to address the aerospace workforce issue.
  • Help aerospace education programs collect and use data in addressing the workforce issue.
  • Enhance programs’ recruitment of students by connecting programs with other programs in the pipeline.
  • Identify and share best practices. 
  • Establish collective advocacy for aerospace education programs. 
  • Help programs’ alumni get jobs in aerospace.

Coppola is no stranger to aerospace education since he’s also in charge of the Real-World Design Challenge (RWDC), an annual international competition providing  high school students the opportunity to work on real-world engineering challenges. Each year student teams develop innovative designs for an aircraft and this year’s challenge is an Unmanned Aircraft System Challenge: Unmanned Cargo Transport, the engineering of an unmanned cargo transport.  There are many such STEM competitions including the American Rocketry Challenge and the MRO Americas Aerospace Maintenance Competition.

Leaky Pipeline

AEPA also aims to plug pipeline leaks and connect isolated silos. Indeed, one of the industry’s biggest problems is the fact everyone is doing their own thing. While laudable we need what AEPA has in mind – creating an overarching aerospace education membership organization representing the interests of these groups and connecting the programs.

Siloing is a major problem at the college and graduate levels, as covered by FAAW News. These silos, educators say, need to be broken down to meet what industry wants – interdisciplinary employees who understand the working parts of a given effort so they can communicate at an advanced level to solve engineering issues.

“If we can plug some of the leaks, we’ll be successful,” said Coppola “The goal is to collectively work together by connecting one level to the next, so kids don’t drop out when they don’t know what the next step is. We want each program to interact so if a middle school has a program, it can guide the students into the other levels that will keep them in the pipeline. If we don’t offer them steady, step-by-step progress, we lose them. If we can provide those students with pathways to the next step, we can keep them from dropping out and help them achieve their goal whether it is pilot, AMT, engineer or many of the new jobs being created by emerging space companies and aerospace activities that today remain undefined.”

To that end, AEPA will create a virtual program fair designed for K-12 teachers, students, guidance counselors and parents to explore available programs.

“Students, parents and educators need to understand the kinds of programmatic options available, what is exciting about these jobs, the different topics, the cost, where they are located,” said Coppola. “This virtual program fair will also tell them how they qualify and the next level of opportunities that ultimately leads them into their career. Then we can move down the pipeline to lower levels and connect them to this career-leading pipeline. We don’t have all the answers, but we have ideas of how to work through the pipeline and work collectively to be successful.”


The virtual program fair would be huge since it creates a single source for students, parents and educators. “Individually, it is difficult to market these programs,” he continued. “A virtual program fair can begin the process. It also provides targeted marketing for post-secondary programs. This helps enhance their student recruitment. The audience is composed of students that have demonstrated an interest in aerospace by participating in an aerospace program.”

Source, AOPA FOUNDATION Hgh School Aviation STEM Curriculum

On any given day, numerous local news organizations are writing about a new program or a new aviation/aerospace school in their communities. Most tout piloting and AMT careers. Coppola sees a collective need to talk about other disciplines; to talk about the opportunities these local courses can lead to beyond these headlines.

“One of the first things we must do is stop talking about aviation alone and start talking about aerospace because it is all part of the same whole,” he told FAAW News. “That is something our aerospace members have identified as a real problem. We must broaden the conversation beyond aviation to incorporate space and the incredible opportunities we have there. There are jobs that haven’t even been conceived yet but there are many jobs we take for granted on earth that will be needed in space including refrigeration and farming. Those will be space jobs in the future. A perfect example is creating Ingenuity in the Mars exploration program. There was no expertise in building a helicopter for Mars, so NASA used personnel with traditional helicopter expertise and created a new field. With a 30-minute communications delay to Mars, development of autonomous flight capabilities will be important. And with no poles, we need to develop a navigation system for Mars to do what GPS does on Earth.”

Making this a government-wide effort is important as reflected in last year’s effort by the National Science and Technology Council of the Office of Science and Technology Policy which produced the Interagency Roadmap to Support Space-Related STEM Education and Workforce, providing that roadmap but also recommends making resources and opportunities available to educators, parents and students to encourage the pursuit of STEM and aerospace careers.

It is never to early to introduce kids to aviation and Women in Aviation makes that a
reality at its Girls in Aviation Day during its annual conference. Credit: Kathryn B. Creedy

“The space industry is at an inflection point with expanded growth and scientific breakthroughs that lead us to new understanding of the universe and unlock solutions to challenges experienced on Earth,” concluded the report. “To thrive, the space ecosystem will require contributions and innovations from those with skills, talents, and passions in traditional STEM areas, as well as other expertise from individuals such as technicians, machinists, communications experts, and finance specialists. This Roadmap lays out a set of initial actions that address critical areas and responds to the Vice President’s charge and provides the necessary foundation for future coordinated federal action, as well as collaboration with industry and academia.”

Committee Structure

The AEPA’s most active committee is its Government Advocacy Committee which is helping develop funding and enact Task Force recommendations. It is beginning with the Senate but, once the House gets settled with committee assignments and tasks, the committee will move to the other side of Capitol Hill to promote support. Task Force members laid the groundwork for these efforts last year in meetings on Capitol Hill to discuss recommendations.

AEPA’s Corporate Advocacy Committee results from the fact corporate workforce development programs, although many, need to be wrangled together as much as aviation/aerospace education programs. During a meeting between STEM competitions and the relevant aviation/aerospace organizations workforce committees in Washington, it found difficulty in identifying a point of contact within corporations responsible for aviation/aerospace outreach, education and funding efforts.

“The STEM competitions wanted volunteers and corporations were eager to provide them, but there was no mechanism to make that happen,” explained Coppola. “Having no easily accessible point of contact with these companies is a major roadblock.  The Committee seeks to eliminate that and develop the best method to make collaboration happen and be more effective.”

These meetings also identified another major roadblock that makes the pipeline leaky – experience requirements for the aviation/aerospace industry.

“They require seven-to-10-years’ experience for an entry-level engineering position, but these kids are graduating with huge debt, and they can’t wait,” he said. “They need a job at graduation. So, they’ve already identified their goal as aerospace and defense but when they get to the finish line they are turned away for lack of experience and go into biomedical or other engineering fields. Research shows their first job determines their career trajectory and they never come back. That dramatically reduces the number of students joining the industry, so we need a conversation with these companies about these requirements.

“We can address this in couple of ways,” he continued. “Every company must think about investing in internships at universities. Every engineering student should have an internship opportunity each year they are in the program and companies need to think about supporting them. In addition, companies need to think about counting some of that experience and others, such as experience in STEM competitions. Many AEPA members do similar levels of work including launching satellite and the cyber patriot competitions. These need to be counted as real-world experience when companies consider resumes.”

Source: PTC proprietary images, PTC Vuforia technology

This is not a new suggestion since the Aviation Technical Education Council has long recommended companies support high-and-technical-school programs, creating support, brand and opportunity awareness for the next generation. Here, too, we have a pipeline leakage problem since many aviation maintenance school graduates leave to join automakers and even Disney where their skills are in high demand.

AEPA also has an advisory committee to ultimately determine the best practices for aviation/aerospace programs. “When you talk to people who have a program in aerospace every single one is doing it because they are passionate,” he said. “They love a particular topic area and want to share that passion and their time to pass on their experience and expertise to the next generation. We want to transfer that knowledge from one program to another so we can learn from each other and what makes them successful. AEPA allows us to get beyond the limitations and constraints we have in our silos and create an informal collaboration among members to share what works, what doesn’t, how to recruit, how to retain and what’s the best way to teach in the way kids today are learning.”

National Center for the Advancement of Aviation

Bills have been introduced in Congress to create a National Center to Advance Aviation (NCAA) so why not leave it to that organization? While the NCAA might be laudable, a government organization comes with a lot of baggage not the least of which is rising and falling interest from agencies and Congress and the chaos now surrounding legislating.

That is not what AEPA has in mind.

“I can only give you my perspective and, if I’m wrong, I’ll gladly be corrected,” Coppola said. “My understanding is that Congress wants to set up a quasi, non-government organization to do things federal agencies cannot do now easily. The administrative structure will likely be large and complex in order to gather the funding from government agencies and distribute it to aerospace education organizations. That is one approach but ours is very different.

Source: Science in HD via Unsplash

“Our goal is to keep the administration very thin,” he explained. “We are a membership organization. We don’t want to compete with our members for funding. We want funding resources to go directly to our members. So, we do not accept donations from companies, federal or state governments. Instead, we direct them to our members’ programs, providing information on those programs. Our structure is designed to represent the interest of membership programs and move the ball forward that way.”  

Tracking Success

Coppola also sees a need to track the success of programs especially since such metrics are so closely tied to funding.

RWDC did a 10-year longitudinal study – The Results Are In! Students Are Going into the Aerospace and Defense Workforce! – determining how successful the program is. It’s metrics should be copied by all aviation/aerospace education programs.

“Of all U.S. students in the U.S., only 5% obtained bachelor’s degrees in engineering while 62% of RWDC students obtained bachelor’s degrees in engineering,” according to its report. “RWDC students had a 57% higher rate of obtaining bachelor’s degrees in engineering than all U.S. students. When STEM fields are compared, it was found that 34% of all U.S. students obtained bachelor’s degrees in STEM fields while 89% of RWDC students obtained bachelor’s degrees in STEM fields. RWDC students had a 55% higher rate of obtaining bachelor’s degrees in STEM fields than all U.S. students.”

Most RWDC students go on to higher education and many take jobs in aerospace, STEM or business. So, a comparison between those underrepresented in Science & Engineering (S&E) with those who are working in S&E, with a bachelor’s degree, is interesting:  42.2 % of the RWDC students are in groups underrepresented in S&E while students across the United States who are underrepresented in S&E and employed with bachelor’s degrees represent only 30.1%, according to the RWDC annual student survey and the National Science Board Science and Engineering Indictors 2018.

During a recent webinar briefing the National Association of State Aviation Officials (NASAO) Center for Aviation Research and Education, the AOPA Foundation recounted the difference it’s Aviation STEM High School Curriculum makes. “In 2021/22 we had 1,152 in our first cohort of graduates,” reported AOPA Foundation Director High School Outreach Glenn Ponas. “We found 63% had post-secondary intentions pursuing STEM with 58% of those seeking aviation careers. Among those seeking aviation careers, 32% said they will become engineers, 14% are going into maintenance with 35% wanting to be pilots. About 19% are pursuing other aerospace careers.

Ponas reported while the 15,000 students pursuing its curriculum, overwhelmingly remained male at 78%, 22% were women. It’s efforts to increase diversity is also working, with a 50/50 mix of white and people of color. African Americans made up 17% while Hispanics are 23%.

The Foundation is also reaching different underserved populations with 40% of 400 schools using the program in the 2022-23 academic year in rural areas with a roughly equal amount being suburban schools. Participating schools included 21% in urban areas. Some 46% were Title I eligible schools serving high- and mid-high poverty level students. Finally, 75% of schools were public with private and charter schools making up 22%.

Although relatively new, the Experimental Aircraft Association’s AeroEducate program is making steady progress complementing the other aviation/aerospace education activities. EAA reported AeroEducate, the online portal that engages youth, parents and teachers in the world of flight, grew over its first five months to more than 3,000 registered users. Through January 2023, 1,700+ AeroEducate students registered, more than half of them in grades 9-12 in addition to 850 teachers who have registered to use AeroEducate in their classrooms. AeroEducate’s 1,500 current student users, ranging in age from five to 18 years old, combined to complete 3,000 activities across the program’s five career areas.

EAA is also working with Sporty’s which offers its Learn to Fly course free to EAA’s Young Eagles. To date, more than 100,000 young have engaged with Sporty’s Learn to Fly which was developed with lessons learned from EAA pilots who have flown Young Eagles. Those pilots reported that after their flight, many of the young people wanted to discover more about aviation but lacked access to reliable and professional resources. The goal is to build the next generation of aviators and boost student pilot starts with a group already engaged through the Young Eagles program.

Clearly, what we are doing is working. But we need to do it together.


Coppola summed up the effort succinctly. “To effectively address the aerospace workforce issue, we need to come together and work collectively,” he said. “Government, industry and education need to work collaboratively to develop solutions.”

AEPA, then, is a best hope to get the job done.

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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