STEM Academy piloting next generation

awoolen@macon.comFebruary 6, 2013 

WARNER ROBINS -- A group of third-grade students gasped when they were told they would be playing with iPads in class.

The students, who were participating in the Museum of Aviation’s National Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) Academy’s Ace on the Go program, used the iPads to build and launch rockets on an app called Rocket Science 101.

Last year, the museum’s education department received a $436,873 grant from NASA, one of several organizations that sponsor the department.

Ace on the Go is just one program that received a boost from NASA’s grant. The academy also offers Aviation Connections through Experiments (ACE); Altitudes Continuing Education, which helps students with internships; Family STEM Adventures, for parents and children to experience education together; Mission Quest and Air Traffic Control; NASA Regional Educator Resource Center, which provides free NASA materials to Georgia teachers and offers a free STEM day; after-school courses; and Wonder Wings, a preschool educational program.

“We recognize that there are changing STEM needs in our schools and in the business world, and we need to not only keep up, but help pave the way for students and teachers,” said Melissa Spalding, director of education at the museum.

STEM subjects are at the forefront now because of the number of employment opportunities that arise from STEM.

Jobs in STEM fields are expected to grow by 17 percent in the next several years, compared with 9.8 percent growth for non-STEM jobs, according to the Economics and Statistics Administration of the U.S. Department of Commerce.

“STEM jobs are jobs of the future, and they are essential to growth in America,” Spalding said.

The education space at the museum, which is where most of the STEM-based learning takes place, is self-contained with restrooms and a kitchen to keep it separate from museum visitors.

Classrooms are set up for preschoolers and kindergarten students while a science lab is set up for older students.

Laptops are available for middle school and older students.

More than airplanes

As a part of the NASA grant, STEM travels to Middle Georgia schools in Houston, Peach, Bleckley, Crawford, Dooly and Bibb counties to give lessons about STEM. Six STEM-based outreach programs will serve 9,000 second- through eighth-grade students, 1,600 parents and 150 teachers, Spalding said.

More than 50,000 people attended an education program at the museum in 2012. The grant allowed the department to hire two additional instructors, which will lead to 5,000 more students being able to attend the programs in 2013.

“One misconception is that everything must be about airplanes. We do so much more than that,” Spalding said.

With the science portion of the program, students look at states of matter.

At Westside Elementary School on Jan. 22, Brittany Estrada, a third-grader, got to learn about science projects during an Ace on the Go program.

Liz Skinner, a STEM teacher, did a demonstration about gases, liquids and solids.

She said the main thing she wanted students to remember was the difference between chemical and physical changes in matter.

“They get to actually watch something happen,” Skinner said of the program.

Eight-year-old Brittany liked touching the jelly-like marbles that grew when placed in water.

“They were really squishy,” the future outer space scientist said.

In another classroom, STEM teacher Cindy Groves handed out a dozen iPads to third-graders to allow them to build and launch rockets on the Rocket Science 101 app.

Naturel Smith Lofton, age 8, without looking up from her screen, said she planned to download the app on her iPad at home.

When it came time for her rocket to launch, she did the countdown out loud, as did most students, from 10 to 1. The app then told students how fast their rocket traveled and how many seconds it took to reach orbit.

“This is so cool,” Naturel said.

Mock airplanes bring real-life experiences

Back in the Mission Quest lab, which is housed in the Century of Flight building, the cockpits are designed to look and feel exactly the same as on a real airplane. There are GPS devices, radar and other navigation systems that are the same as Air Force pilots use.

In 2012, more than 6,500 people attended the simulated Mission Quest and Air Traffic Control programs.

The simulator’s sophisticated software is state-of-the-art, and no other program in the U.S. uses something like the museum’s on such a large scale, said Wayne Carley, a teacher at Mission Quest.

There are eight aircraft, which hold a pilot and co-pilot. One of the aircraft holds two additional people. Each cockpit is set up with a large television screen that shows what a pilot would see out of the front windows of a plane.

“All of this is actual equipment,” said Carley, who worked with software developers to produce the simulator.

He can program the software to go anywhere in the world in any weather condition.

Before heading into flight, students attend training and are required to work as a team to accomplish a mission. All of the airplanes can fly together as a group mission.

“We kick it up a notch,” Carley said.

F-15 fighter pilots regularly come to visit the simulators to help tweak them to make sure they are up to standard. Usually once a quarter, Carley gets ideas from the people who actually fly these kinds of planes.

“They like it better with ours than their own simulators” in the Air Force, Carley said.

Groups from across the U.S. come to Mission Quest for exercises. An adult group from London is coming to the museum in March to use the lab.

Across the hall, the Air Traffic Control center also has simulated equipment to rival that at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. The software runs the program based on Federal Aviation Administration rules.

“It’s as realistic as you can get,” said Carley.

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