Special Report

Want Students to Become Better Problem Solvers? Then Teach Them to Fly Planes and Drones

By Kevin Bushweller — May 03, 2022 10 min read
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Pairs of Magruder High School freshmen are gathered at the controls of eight Redbird flight simulators, high-tech machinery with foot pedals and control panels that are used to train private and professional pilots how to take off, land, and maneuver aircraft safely under normal and dangerous circumstances.

The students in the second-floor classroom—some wearing COVID masks and others choosing not to—are all getting a taste of the thrill and potential dangers of piloting an airplane. The computer keyboards for the FAA-approved simulators feature red, green, blue, orange, and brown function keys for activating experiences such as flying in zero visibility, with a failed engine, or on autopilot. One student is approaching an airport for a landing, but veers sideways across the runway. Another applies too much power when taking off, flying up at an awkward, problematic angle.

In the years ahead, these 9th graders will learn the principles of flying airplanes and drones; tackle mathematical and engineering analyses around concepts such as torque, force, weight, distance, and altitude; learn how dead or malfunctioning batteries can unleash “runaway” drones; and investigate the possible causes of an airplane crash and how it could have been prevented.

One 9th grader, Eleanor Kim, is not sure what career she eventually will choose as an adult, but she is seriously considering something in the aviation industry. “I want to try this out,” she said. “It gives us a great plan for the future and future job options.”

The free and relatively new curriculum—designed by the nonprofit Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) Foundation and used mostly in high school career and technical education programs—is spreading quickly across the country, growing from use in 29 schools in 17 states in 2017-18 to 322 schools in 44 states for the 2021-22 school year. Forty percent of the kids in the program are students of color and 21 percent are females.

Students from Magruder High School’s aviation program get a lesson on mechanical work during a field trip to the Montgomery County Airpark in Gaithersburg, Md., on April 6, 2022.

The surge in interest is fueled largely by growing opportunities in the airline industry, which faces massive shortages of pilots, mechanics, and other jobs due to retirements and the domestic and international expansion strategies of many airlines.

The industry is also struggling to build a roster of pilots that features more women and people of color. Currently, only about 5 percent of aircraft pilots and flight engineers are women, 4 percent are Black, 2 percent are Asian, and 6 percent are Hispanic, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“Women and people of different ethnicities, they bring a different perspective, a different energy,” said Tammie Jo Shults, a former Navy and Southwest Airlines pilot and author of Nerves of Steel, which recounts the problem-solving skills she put into action to safely land a Boeing 737 when it blew an engine at 32,000 feet. “We are not needed in the industry to make it fair. We’re needed in the industry because when you mix all those groups together, you get a higher IQ. You get better innovation.”

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Brad Morrison, manager of pilot recruiting and development for American Airlines, said roughly half of his airline’s pilots are scheduled to retire within the next seven years and American needs to hire 2,400 pilots this year alone. There is also a big demand for airplane mechanics and other jobs, he added.

“What I tell kids now,” Morrison said, “is this is how I wish the industry would have been 20 years ago” when he was thinking of pursuing a career as a pilot. There are way more opportunities now to enter the airline industry in a variety of careers and get promoted quickly, he said.

Solving real-world problems: Investigating the cause of a plane crash

Ayman Bustillos, a Magruder senior who plans to study aerospace engineering at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Fla., next year, has been in the AOPA program for four years. He said one of the most powerful and memorable problem-solving lessons he learned in high school happened when he was asked to investigate the cause of a catastrophic jet airplane crash. “That helped me in my decision to become an aerospace engineer,” he said.

The plane crash lesson—which is part of the curriculum—had Ayman and four other students work as a team to investigate why the plane crashed as it approached the runway. Ayman’s responsibility was to investigate the specifications of the airplane, its engines and its age; a second team member had to evaluate the quality of communications between the pilots and the air traffic control operators; a third, the weather conditions during takeoff, in flight, and on the landing approach; a fourth was tasked with pulling together all the data from the aftermath of the crash; and the last team member had to review previous airplane crashes to determine if there were lessons learned from those accidents that could be applied to this one.

“The whole point of the exercise was to work on a team and combine each other’s strengths,” said Ayman, who noted that the team’s final conclusion was that pilot error caused the crash.

Victoria Wentt, a recent Magruder graduate who is now attending a local community college, is working toward earning her private pilot’s certificate and hopes to one day fly for one of the major commercial airlines. She too found the opportunity to tackle a real-world problem like a plane crash much more meaningful than what she learned in most of her other classes in high school.

“We were the problem solvers,” said Wentt, who would be among a tiny percentage of Black female commercial airline pilots if she achieves her professional goal. “We had to figure out what happened and why it happened. We all learn off of other people’s mistakes. But in a plane crash scenario, you do not want to be the one making the mistake yourself.”

Despite the largely positive experience Ayman and Wentt had in the program, he suggested there is room for improvement. “The biggest flaw of the program was the lack of direct instruction,” he said. “Most of the time, you can do your own thing.”

That works well for highly motivated students like him, he said. But without enough direct supervision, others don’t take the work “as seriously as they’re supposed to.”

Luke Moitoza, left, and Byron Barksdale, sophomores in the aviation program at Magruder High School in Rockville, Md., work together to assemble a helicopter during class on April 7, 2022.

Luke Moitoza and Byron Barksdale are very serious about flying.

On this April morning, in their second period AOPA class, the two sophomores use plastic parts, wood pieces, tape, and rubber bands to build a miniature helicopter—an exercise to teach them about torque (a twisting force that prompts rotation) and how the rotor system of a helicopter affects its motion.

But after putting the tiny flying machine together, they twist the rubber band too tightly. When they let it go to see if it will fly properly, it shoots up like a rocket and smashes into the high ceiling in the Magruder classroom, the helicopter crashing to the floor after leaving one of its key propeller components embedded in the ceiling.

Byron, a high school baseball player wearing his blue and gray Magruder team jersey that day, eyes a tennis ball on his table, holds it in his hand for a moment, then throws it underhand at the ceiling, hitting a spot perfectly to make the purple helicopter part pop out of the ceiling and drop down. Cheers and laughter follow.

Then the two are right back at it, trying to put the helicopter back together, focused and serious with Moitoza wearing a black COVID mask and Barksdale maskless.

Moitoza, a 16-year-old with a military short haircut, received a $10,000 scholarship from AOPA to take flight lessons and is in the Civil Air Patrol. He plans to join the U.S. Air Force after college and hopes one day to fly B-21 bombers. Byron is thinking about entering the military to fly cargo planes.

In pursuit of his private pilot’s certificate, Moitoza did a solo flight in Winchester, Va., last fall, and a three-hour flight and night flight with an instructor. He is on track to get his pilot’s certificate when he turns 17.

‘The new frontier of flying’: Learning about drones

The AOPA curriculum has two tracks that students decide to take when they are juniors—the regular pilot pathway or the drone track. Because he has already learned a lot of the regular pilot skills on his own, Moitoza plans to enter the drone track because he wants to be licensed to fly both planes and drones. “That’s the new frontier of flying,” he said.

In a little more than a year, the number of FAA-licensed drone pilots in the United States increased from about 206,000 to more than 273,000, according to Glenn Ponas, the AOPA Foundation’s director of high school outreach and a former aviation teacher and district administrator for the Pittsburgh public schools.

Dan Howell, aviation and technology teacher at Magruder High School in Rockville, Md., gives a lesson on batteries as part of the aviation curriculum on April 7, 2022.

But one of the hurdles for the Magruder program is getting approval from the county government to fly drones—either in a protected area inside the school building or outside on school property. School officials are working on making that happen. What complicates matters is the school is located close to Washington, D.C., which has some of the most-restricted air space in the country to fly regular planes or drones.

Natalie Webb, a junior in the program’s drone pathway, says it has taught her important problem-solving skills such as collaboration that are often absent in her other academic classes. She said having the opportunity to fly drones under the supervision of teachers would make the program even better. She hopes the school gets that approval before she graduates next year.

A 16-year-old competitive swimmer, Webb does not want to be a professional pilot of planes or drones. But she is now seriously considering a business management career in aviation because of the industry’s expanding opportunities.

That is music to the ears of Erik Yates, the AOPA Foundation’s director of curriculum development and a former public and international school teacher and STEM supervisor for 25 years, given that some career and technical education programs are often criticized for funneling students into narrow career pathways with few options to move in other directions. “If you can imagine a job, it’s in the airline industry,” he said, rattling off a bunch of non-pilot careers such as human resource management.

‘Flying does involve certain risks’

On a cold, drizzly afternoon in April, Yates is in an airplane hangar at the Montgomery County Airpark in Maryland, giving a presentation about the aviation industry and the myths surrounding it to a group of sophomores, including Luke and Byron. He occasionally pauses his presentation to accommodate the roar of charter jets or prop airplanes taxiing for a takeoff or coming in after a landing, and some kids turn to watch the planes.

Earlier that morning, the students had the opportunity to climb inside a charter jet and examine the cockpit, talk to current and retired airline pilots, and see how airplane mechanics work. The two mechanics working on this day are women.

Students from Magruder High School’s aviation program visit the Montgomery County Airpark in Gaithersburg, Md., on April 6, 2022.

When the din of the airplanes is far from the hangar, Yates talks to the students about US Airways Flight 1549, which hit a flock of birds after taking off on Jan. 15, 2009, from New York City’s La Guardia Airport and then lost all engine power. Yates told the students that the jet airplane’s captain, Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, used problem-solving skills he had learned flying glider planes when he was younger to carefully guide the plane safely onto the Hudson River.

That story eventually led to a slide Yates showed on a large screen to the students about one of the myths about the airline industry: It is too dangerous. He pointed out that it is much safer to fly than to drive a car. (A few years ago, the National Safety Council compiled an odds-of-dying table, showing that the chances of dying in a motor vehicle accident to be 1 in 101 for a lifetime—for commercial airline flying and private flights, it concluded there were too few deaths to calculate lifetime odds.)

“We don’t hide from the fact that flying does involve certain risks,” he said in a follow-up interview. “But riding a horse involves certain risks, too.”

Luke weighed those risks before he took his first solo flight. But once the plane left the runway and took off toward the sky, he looked out the window and saw a passenger jet flying high above him, and he remembers thinking: “I’ve got this. This is why I’m flying.”

Coverage of STEM, problem solving, and entrepreneurial thinking is supported in part by a grant from The Lemelson Foundation, at www.lemelson.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the May 04, 2022 edition of Education Week as How to Make Students Better Problem Solvers: Teach Them to Fly


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