Flight Sims for STEM Teaching
Five years ago, or maybe 10, stem was something usually used in the same sentence with seeds, but lately, you canít hardly open a Cessna door without hitting uppercase STEM. This, of course, refers to teaching science, technology, engineering and math courses and if you subscribe to mass-media wisdom, the U.S. is the laughingstock of STEMdom.
This claim is not without evidence. The world organizations that rank such things find that U.S. students rank near the bottom of the developed world in math skills and science knowledge. The Program for International Student Assessment found that in math skills, the U.S. trails Vietnam, Iceland, Latvia and the Slovak Republic, but at 29th, weíre ahead of Greece, Uruguay and Serbia. Tied for first are China, Finland and South Korea.
Makes you wonder how the U.S. can possibly be responsible for as much innovation as it is and why so many foreign students come here to school. I think the explanation is simple. You canít stop the really smart, motivated kids from learning math and science unless you tape their eyes and ears and maybe not even then. Itís the average kids who will do the work that we need to worry about.
Against this dismal backdrop, I noticed an ad in Air&Space magazine emblazoned with this title: ďFlying Makes Learning STEM Fun.Ē Itís from a company called Hotseat Chassis and theyíre basically selling affordable, non-motion sims as a classroom tool to teach STEM topics. You can see the connection. For a student just bored by even simple math, applying the basic calculations required to plan and conduct a flight and then actually doing it in the sim could be a motivator. Thatís a lot more fun than just pointlessly plotting X-Y coordinates on a spreadsheet.
Hotchassisí Leah Wheeler told me the program is still new, so they havenít developed detailed, sim-based curricula for their machines, but thatís coming. She says some teachers want a full syllabus while some want to develop their own. I can see the possibilities. Although theyíre not using sims, a non-profit called thinkglobalflight.org is about to launch a global circumnavigation in a Cirrus with the like goal of promoting STEM. The flight will launch from Sun Ďn Fun in April.
Now at this point, a normal aviation journalist would wax enthusiastic about what a great idea this blending of STEM and aviation is. But if I was ever normal, I no longer am, so Iím going to bifurcate the topic a little. First, the idea of stimulating math and science with a flight simulator is terrific, even if the kids attracted to it ultimately view it as just a carnival ride and never commit actual aviation. As I said, the smart kids donít need this motivation, but the great unwashed middleóa school in which I proudly matriculated with an underachieving 2.5 GPAómay need all the help they can get. Theyíll be the people not necessarily inventing, but building, operating and repairing the machines of the future. The more STEMcentric they are, the better. We donít need to grab all of them, just more of them. If these programs can do that, why not?
As of today, I am officially announcing my atheism with regard to attracting young people to the romance and magic of flight. All the things weíve tried to do this have more or less failed and we arenít producingónor are we likely to produceómany new pilots from the youth ranks. Weíve abundantly assured that they canít afford to fly airplanes and long-term income projections suggest this wonít change in a global economy thatís become hyper-competitive.
So as much as I might like to delude myself by thinking sim-based STEM training will energize a vast new generation of pilots, Iím preferring, maybe, to accept the reality that thatís just not likely to happen. Perhaps itís best if we encourage the smart kids who will invent the future to land one of those top 5 percent of jobs that will allow them to buy a used Cirrus in 2025.†
And look at it this way: If a handful of good science teachers get hold of these sims and use them in the same classrooms where the local school board has decreed the teaching of creationism, that is by no means a small victory.