Teaching STEM Through Flight Simulation

Engaging kids in math and science may be as simple as showing how STEM relates to real-world experiences.

Plane flying across the blue sky
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Kids no longer have to wait for playtime to pretend to be a pilot: They can do it in class. And learn science, engineering, technology and math (STEM) while they are at it.

Tapping into children's love of airborne adventures, several Northeast educators are pioneering new curricula that teach STEM through flight simulation for middle and high school students. Armed with new equipment designed for the classroom, these teachers find that flight simulation and STEM subjects make excellent partners, engaging students in topics they might otherwise find uninteresting or intimidating.

"The idea is to use visual education as opposed to memorizing formulas," says Jay Leboff, CEO of HotSeat, a company that makes flight simulation equipment. Having sold his simulators to the aviation industry and vocational schools for years, Leboff is focused now on getting his hardware in regular classrooms to help teach STEM. "The pulse of this field is beating like crazy, looking for ways to get results as opposed to lecturing kids."

While there haven't been any formal studies done on this new method of learning, teachers who are using it in their classrooms say it's very effective.

"No one ever in my Flight Club says to me: 'Why should I learn this math?'" says Vivian Birdsall, technology integrator and head of the math department at Saxe Middle School in New Canaan, Conn. The students want to be pilots, Birdsall says, and they come to understand that math and science are necessary to the profession.

Birdsall, who flew commercial airplanes before becoming a teacher, prides herself on leading one of the most popular after-school clubs at Saxe. Most clubs have 10 to 15 members, but her Flight Club has 59 now and may grow to more than 100 by the end of the school year – as it did last year, she says.

For students to be motivated they sometimes need instant feedback and gratification, says Henry Rey, who teaches physics and earth science to high school students at the Frederick Douglass Academy in Harlem, N.Y. Flight simulation provides that.

"If I'm using a test, it might take me two or three days to tell them what they got wrong," Rey explains. With the simulator, "you can do a playback as soon as you are finished; they can correct themselves."

Not only does the flight simulator instill a desire to learn, but it works exceptionally well as a way to teach STEM topics, Birdsall and Rey have found.

Plotting coordinates on a grid and understanding positive and negative slopes can be tough concepts for middle school students to understand, Birdsall says, but it starts to make sense when you talk about it in relationship to flight.

"A negative slope is pretty easy to teach when you are going down in an airplane," Birdsall says. That and many other areas of middle school math dovetail really well with flight simulation, she says. So much so that Birdsall is in the midst of developing a curriculum to teach all of seventh grade math using the simulator as a tool.

One of HotSeat's flight simulation stations, including the software and computers, costs about $4,000, Leboff says. He's trying to keep costs down in order to expand his idea to other schools. Birdsall says her school is already seeing the benefit of such a program: For next year, Saxe has already planned a STEM course modeled after the activities of Flight Club. Birdsall is mapping the curriculum she is developing to the Common Core, voluntary English and Math standards adopted by 45 states and the District of Columbia, so it's transferable to schools across the country.

At the Frederick Douglass Academy, Rey developed a two-year course of study for juniors and seniors that teaches earth science, math, systematic problem solving and even a little bit about medicine, all through flight simulation. His students, for instance, learn about how colds and inflammation will affect their ability to fly a plane.

Rey targets two groups of students: Those struggling with math and science and those interested in pursuing aviation as a career. For the former, the computers and simulators help "to make them feel the concepts we are talking about" without having to use a lot of math initially, Rey said. For the students interested in pursing flying professionally, the classes prepare them for jobs right out of high school: Students who pass Rey's program can earn a Federal Aviation Administration certificate to become private pilots or ground instructors.

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