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Building Student And Teacher Interest In STEM Through Aviation

Building Student And Teacher Interest In STEM Through Aviation

Central New Jersey-Based Program Joins 2011 WAI Conference To Showcase A Comprehensive Business Education Partnership

Leaders of a business-education partnership in Central New Jersey are participating in the 22nd Annual International Women in Aviation Conference, and showcasing a comprehensive, community-based approach to stimulating and sustaining interest in STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Math) through the lens of aviation.

Alexandria Field (N85) Photo By Jim O'Donnell

Since the September 2010 award of a $100,000 Department of Transportation (DOT) Garrett A. Morgan Technology and Transportation Education Program (GAMTTEP) grant, this Central Jersey collaborative has made significant progress in demonstrating how a local airport can be transformed into a "Living Laboratory" by partnering with a local school districts and creating a strong aviation ecosystem to introduce, educate and guide young people to STEM related careers in aviation.

It seems fitting that we showcase the Central Jersey GAMTTEP program at Women in Aviation," said Program Director Linda Fritsche Castner, part-owner/operator of Alexandria Field Airport (N85) in Pittstown, NJ. "I've always wanted our airport to be a place that brought out the best in people, especially young women. We operate a flight school and it was over ten years ago that I asked the question, 'why don't more women learn to fly'?"

Ms. Castner initiated a research project in 1998. During this process, she also participated in the 2001 WAI conference and interviewed participants to understand what motivated women who are clearly inspired by aviation. "The interviews at WAI were helpful. It confirmed my assumptions that many young women with an interest in aviation were exposed to aviation early in their lives." The project was kicked into a formal research mode in 2003 and included another WAI member, Dr. Sue Stafford, professor at Simmons College, aircraft owner and instrument rated pilot. After seven years of formal research, design, demonstration and documentation, the effort resulted in the development of the "Women Take Flight" and "Leaders Take Flight" workshops.

Linda Fritsche Castner

The results Castner says, were impressive. "Most, if not all, workshop participants would never have considered flying in a small airplane," she said. "However, after completion of the workshop, the immediate response was elation and more importantly, the longer term impacts were significant. While most workshop participants did not pursue additional flight training, some did, and the majority reported, in their words, an increase in 'self-confidence', 'self-respect', 'self esteem' and 'empowerment'. "I can always draw on this experience as a reference that I can accomplish things that are far outside [my] normal boundaries," said one participant. "If I can fly an airplane, I can do anything," said another.

Castner said she and Dr. Stafford also realized that the power of these workshops was in documenting what they call 'The Flying Effect'. "What we are hoping to do with the Garrett Morgan grant", says Stafford, "is to bring the Take Flight workshop experience and The Flying Effect to teachers and students of STEM and demonstrate how an aviation based program can inspire confidence, adaptability and collaboration - important leadership traits necessary to successfully complete a demanding STEM education and improve teaching in the classroom."

"Once we launched the GAMTTEP program in the fall 2010, we started to get inquiries from other general aviation airports and from universities, such as Rutgers, who see the potential of this workshop in building leadership and confidence amongst faculty and incoming students pursuing STEM careers," said Castner. Faculty from Rutgers will be participating in the Leaders Take Flight workshop this summer. "Another example", said Castner "is Johnson & Johnson's Women in Science and Engineering (WISE). Central Jersey GAMTTEP will be partnering with WISE in May 2011 for a STEM Exploration Day. "Alexandria Field has always been part of the community", says Ms. Castner, "but we realized that to generate interest in aviation that we needed a comprehensive program that reached out to multiple age groups and provided a variety of sustainable activities to mentor student interests over time. Programs funded by the DOT grant include the Aviation Science Club, Engineering Tours and Education, extensive outreach to community groups, Aviation Science Camps, internships and job shadowing and two 'Take Flight' workshops.

Leaders Take Flight Participant

"This program has created a stronger role for the airport and improved our visibility and importance to the community," Castner continued. "In awarding the Garrett Morgan grant, DOT specifically recognized that what we are doing here at Alexandria Field has strong potential as a national model."

There are nearly 20,000 airports throughout the U.S. and include over 1,100 airports like Alexandria Field, privately owned, but open to the public. Combine this with over 15,000 K-12 school districts, an estimated 1.7 million K-12 STEM educators, a increased focus on STEM in higher education, and a host of exciting programs that need a "Living Laboratory" to call home.

"We are thankful to DOT for the grant, but it won't last forever," says Castner. "That is why we have initiated fundraising activities such as the Courtesy Car project, supported by the local chamber of commerce. We have also initiated an outreach program to educate the aviation and STEM communities about the potential of this model. "We specifically chose WAI as our first stop on a yearlong outreach effort."

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