Flight Sims for STEM Teaching

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Five years ago, or maybe 10, stem was something usually used in the same sentence with seeds, but lately, you can’t 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, we’re 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 can’t stop the really smart, motivated kids from learning math and science unless you tape their eyes and ears and maybe not even then. It’s 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: “Flying Makes Learning STEM Fun.” It’s from a company called Hotseat Chassis and they’re 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. That’s a lot more fun than just pointlessly plotting X-Y coordinates on a spreadsheet.

Hotchassis’ Leah Wheeler told me the program is still new, so they haven’t developed detailed, sim-based curricula for their machines, but that’s coming. She says some teachers want a full syllabus while some want to develop their own. I can see the possibilities. Although they’re 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 ‘n 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 I’m 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 don’t need this motivation, but the great unwashed middle—a school in which I proudly matriculated with an underachieving 2.5 GPA—may need all the help they can get. They’ll be the people not necessarily inventing, but building, operating and repairing the machines of the future. The more STEMcentric they are, the better. We don’t 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 we’ve tried to do this have more or less failed and we aren’t producing—nor are we likely to produce—many new pilots from the youth ranks. We’ve abundantly assured that they can’t afford to fly airplanes and long-term income projections suggest this won’t change in a global economy that’s 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, I’m preferring, maybe, to accept the reality that that’s just not likely to happen. Perhaps it’s 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.

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Comments (20)

It will not only fail to increase the ranks of pilots, don't be surprised if it does nothing to improve math or science education. There's just very little there, there.

STEM is all too often mantioned more as a magic talisman in education circles and rather than focusing on solid instruction.and curriulums, they reach for bright shiny objects... like this one They will cheerfully share "We do STEM" while not sharing their curriculum doesnt support a path to high school graduation ready to start a college degree in math, physics, chemistry or engineering.

Posted by: Greg Goodknight | February 6, 2014 6:56 PM    Report this comment

As the old saying goes, if IQ tests were drawn up by farmers instead of psychologists, the genius would be someone who can milk a cow...
PISA was drawn up by a Chinese academic to try and find the best education for his children, step forward China and South Korea (am I being too cynical?)
Like you I doubt the efficacy of top down plans to herd groups of scouts or the chess club etc into having light aircraft rides as a way of producing wanabee pilots -- but I do know being taken for a 10 minute air-show spin paid for by my Dad and with him ginning all over his face next to me in the back seat of a smelly old Cessna did it for me....

Posted by: John Patson | February 7, 2014 5:56 AM    Report this comment

So, in my other life, I'm a consulting engineer. Among our clients are several urban public school departments (we do business-process-automation, among other things) where STEM has been a buzz-word for almost a decade.

From my observations, urban students' math skills and scores are less-than-stellar, for a lot of reasons. Significant among these is this: with the inconsistent exception of the high school environment, school teachers' own math abilities are abysmal. They transfer their own low regard for - and in many cases, outright fear of and distain for - math, to their students. Culturally, it's considered "normal" to be math-phobic; except for the rare "geeks and nerds," math is a burden to be borne, not a window to the Universe.

Juxtaposition: in the summer of 2012, I taught a couple of sections of an "aviation careers" course at a local community college. The enrollees were inner-city middle and high school students; all of them male. The idea was to expose the enrollees to the great variety of careers that exist in the aviation world - a couple of dozen options, from "ramp rats" to astronauts. Each week included three in-classroom days and two field-trip days. With rare exception, the eyes that became opened the widest were my own.

Remember that old joke, "what's the difference between ignorance and apathy? I don't know and I don't care!" ? I learned that contemporary teenage boys know next to nothing about cars, engines, electricity, and fluids of any type other than what can be exchanged with teenage girls. They have grown up in a virtual world in which little of that matters very much. Their world consists principally of video games, movies, iPods, sports, clothes, and sex (the last two being somewhat in conflict). They're not hostile to learning about STEM - they just don't see any compelling reasons to do so.

So far, the most compelling reason that we offer to them is "if you don't get with the program, the Chinese are going to eat your lunch." I forgive them for not buying in to that argument. After all, we've raised them in a world in which there is, indeed, such a thing as a free lunch. It's always been obvious to me that entitlement is the enemy of ambition. But apparently, so is contemporary America.

Sims for STEM? Sure - why not? But if my own experience is reflective of a more universal condition, I wouldn't get my hopes up that the sim time is going to lead to a burning desire for more STEM.

Posted by: Tom Yarsley | February 7, 2014 6:36 AM    Report this comment

Thomas brings up some great points. One thing that's always missing from the education debates is that the horse has to be thirsty. You can have the best-funded programs with the most competent, motivated teachers in the world, but if the kids are growing up in a culture that disdains education, then it won't matter.

Posted by: Chris McLellan | February 7, 2014 8:03 AM    Report this comment

"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 we've tried to do this have more or less failed and we aren't producing..."

To the old and bold pilots in the land: you can't take it with you, promote, donate, share and create. The ongoing decline in aviation needs us, the old pilots, to organize and fix the mess we are in.

To journalists in aviation, stop the infomercial nonsense and instead dedicate a year promoting the "magic of flight" to new pilots and awakening those in deep sleep. We can't surrender to pessimism.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | February 7, 2014 8:51 AM    Report this comment

We need new pilots. We need subsidies to make new pilots. We need to simplify the making of new pilots. We need forceful determination. We need singleness of purpose. The restoration of American aviation needs our sincere involvement.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | February 7, 2014 9:35 AM    Report this comment

Many thoughtful comments, as usual. I agree that a particular sense of entitlement based on popular cultural or social mores can stand in the way of achievement.

As an example, the wealthy and educated one-percenters consistently feel entitled to avoid military service and sacrifice, or to avoid helping our mentally ill and underpriviledged, etc. and to smooth the way for them to achieve the same as they have. Helping others shifts our attention from ourselves to the universal joy of achievement that we share with all people. That's how trickle-down really works, and for me, the only way we can resurrect the spirit and magic of flight for those who do look for that opportunity in their lives. At least the Sim is an effort.

It's also undeniable that we live in fast-changing times. Through the previously mentioned distractions of video games, movies, electronic tablets, and the strangely popular exercise of revealing one's privacy to anyone instantaneously and continuously, the sense of accomplishment from earning a PPL is lost to what can be termed 'microwave expectations' today. And it's only getting faster.

After slogging through Bill Nye's surreal 'debate' (it was anything but) the other night, I'll second the motion we may have to settle for small victories in the battle against delusion and ignorance in our classrooms, so here's hoping the Sims have some success.

Posted by: David Miller | February 7, 2014 12:49 PM    Report this comment

"Now Timmy, and you too Megan, sharpen up on those old "stick/rudder" skills and you MAY get into Harvard or Yale!" Oh, and when your done, don't forget to unplug the computer! JUST KID- ING!!! Maybe they'll be waiving the SAT's soon?

Posted by: Rod Beck | February 7, 2014 3:42 PM    Report this comment

If aviation blogs want more subscribers or if avionics and aircraft manufacturers want more sales then help make new pilots. If the airlines want to meet their pilot staffing needs then increase starting wages. Starting Pay for professional pilots should be enough to help new pilots meet educational loan payments and living expenses. Professional pilot pay should start out at the same level as that of FAA air traffic controllers.

It is discouraging and insulting to promote professional pilot careers when starting salaries will not cover the educational investment covenants or living expenses. If we want more and better pilots then pay more. Better pay will attract more young individuals into our wonderful world of aviation. More pilots means more aircraft, more mechanics, more FBOs, more aviation blogs, more aviation organization members, mote iPads, Foreflights, flight schools and a more robust GA.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | February 8, 2014 7:51 AM    Report this comment

Good comments all, but let us not assume the exposure to the sim (and STEM) is to simply produce pilots. These devices will expose the students to so many of the things necessary for an object to become and remain airborne as well as how to navigate.

The argument about pay rates is one that a junior high school kid could not care less about, but if she cannot understand some physics and trig, not only is piloting precluded, so is every other science career.

I own and operate a small manufacturing company. The math skills of so many we encounter are sorely lacking. I blame not only the individual, but the parent, the school, and let's face it - our current culture. The time when you could get out of high school, go to work at the local factory, buy a house and a boat, or maybe a 152, and expect a nice raise each year - is past.

As others have said, it is up to us to offer a helping hand however we can .

Posted by: Scott Stevens | February 9, 2014 6:49 AM    Report this comment

No pilots, no private aviation, no commercial aviation, no aerospace. STEM is a good program in-line with aeronautics - STEM can help students to understand new technologies. I accept this as I am an old electro-mechanical engineering practitioner, by trade, and flight instructor. My underlying argument is that the American aviation industry is in decline and it begins and ends with the pilot population. Create new airplane pilots and all else follows. To sustain the commercial pilot population growth there must be an equitable pay to that of the investment. This is an insentive disregarded by the employers thus, in part, contributing to the continuing decline. Make more skillful and better educated pilots - yes - But emphasize and implement early the need for industry employers to pay proportionally equal to the cost of becoming a more skillful and better educated pilot.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | February 9, 2014 9:35 AM    Report this comment

"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."

Paul, I totally agree. Now we need some old flight instructors to volunteer to give sim instruction and excite the next generation of pilots.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | February 9, 2014 11:28 AM    Report this comment

G'day Mr. Miller,

Quite obviously you have not taken a look at the entering classes at any of the military academys.

Dave Rogers

David F. Rogers, PhD, ATP
Professor of Aerospace Engineering (Emeritus)
United States Naval Academy
Annapolis, MD
Annapolis, MD

Posted by: David Rogers | February 9, 2014 4:31 PM    Report this comment

And G'day to you, Mister, Doctor, Professor Rogers.

It occurs to me, however, that despite all of your worldly accomplishments and education you so graciously listed, you completely....missed....my....point. Exceptions to the rule prove nothing. 99 percent of the one-percenters avoid military service like a creationist avoids science.

Dave Miller.
Pilot. Veteran. Counselor. Dad. Senior Citizen. And oh, so much, much more. :-)

Posted by: David Miller | February 9, 2014 8:38 PM    Report this comment

As a former teacher witnessing the power of aviation with my students, it's about making S.T.E.M. and flying REAL for students. As well as adults! I started flying at 40 years old when I had always dreamt of flying. Why did I wait so long, because I thought flying was not for me. Add to our industry plight are the statistics for our nation falling behind in core subjects and the all issues with flight instructors (to which I am one) from underpaid to poor quality of instructing. I will take each of us to grow our future.

We need different programs for different types of learners. Educators, parents, pilots also need different types of programs. One size does not fit all. One example of a great aviation education program is Dr. Tim Smith at the Institute for Aerospace Education and kudos to Hotseat Chassis, Leah Wheeler. Dr. Buzz Aldrin could not have said it better, "Back when I was privileged to be a part of the Apollo program, the USA was #1 in science and technology fields. No one had ever heard of S.T.E.M. (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) because we were at the top. Unfortunately today America is falling behind other countries. S.T.E.M. is exactly the focus of Think Global Flight (TGF) reaching over 20,000 students and why I strongly support Captain Judy and TGF. I am looking forward to joining the official launch on April 3 from the SUN 'n FUN airshow in Lakeland, Florida. In addition, I will celebrate a repeat of my T6 solo flight in 1941 at Gilbert field in the TGF Cirrus with Captain Judy."

And, thanks to AVweb for their understanding, vision, and support.

Judy Rice, Think Global Flight Founder/Captain

Posted by: Judy Rice | February 10, 2014 6:26 AM    Report this comment

Perhaps part of the problem in attracting new pilots is the "Gee Whiz" factor that existed in aviation when I was a little kid is now gone. Back then the Apollo Program was going strong and aerospace was the glamour industry to go into. My first ride on a 707 was as thrilling (to me) as being invited to ride on the Space Shuttle.

Aerospace is no longer glamorous, and our national prestige is no longer measured by having the most advanced planes and spacecraft. The glamour jobs are no longer at Boeing or Lockheed but rather Apple and Google. Technology has passed us by, and flying today is about as exciting (to most of the public) as operating an old steam train.

Posted by: Eric Gudorf | February 10, 2014 9:11 AM    Report this comment


May 14, 2013, 2:21 PM
A new survey by the University of North Dakota Aviation Department suggests that young people are being turned off by the prospect of a career as an airline pilot. Just under one third of the 205 student respondents (32 percent) said they are now reconsidering their plans to become an airline pilot. A further 8 percent said that they have already abandoned this career path.

When asked what the industry would have to do to convince them to consider an airline career, 35 percent cited salary increases, 20 percent called for a more family-friendly lifestyle and 13 percent highlighted improved work schedules. The university's Professor Kent Lovelace told the RAA Convention today that the industry needs to offer students more defined career paths if it wants to attract them. He also said that more will need to be done to reduce training costs and provide help with financial aid. At the same time, he feels carriers could do more to project a more positive image of the profession.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | February 10, 2014 9:38 AM    Report this comment

Mr. Sierra; The "new" generation is less interested in the "passion/romance bull" of flying airplanes of 65-80 years ago - show them the $$money$$$ today!

Era (1964 -Father); "Well Todd, now that your mom and me have had to sacrifice so much for you to get your Associates Degree from Podunk Community College, not to mention the $6,000+ for your flying credentials at Downwind Flying Service; what' do you want to do now?

Todd: Well pop, since all the big airlines like United, Pam Am, TWA,and America are hiring, I figure I'd get me a swell job maybe flying those 707's or DC-8's, get a few dates with them gorgeous stewardess and buy a neat Corvette, like the one Buzz drives on "Route 66"!

Era (2014) Dad: Say Doug, now that you'll have your MBA from Wharton soon, have any plans in mind?

Son: "You see Phil (note: not Dad), remember Steve and Jeff - well, we're have a venture capital guy that Steve's father knows - he's backing us on opening up a chain of "high end" coffee shops with computers on site , no need for a lap top, in select demographic markets, primarily in the Middle-Atlantic - New England region, targeted to open this fall. If things go as well as expected, I may lease a Cirrus SR-22 or possibly a Columbia 400"!

Moral of the story: "Show me the money"!

Posted by: Rod Beck | February 10, 2014 5:22 PM    Report this comment

What is technology invented for? To cover certain aspects of society that people are weak in. Can't fly an airline when you don't have airline pilots available? Build the Airbus commercial airliner, that's what.

Designed for 250 hour pilots from the Mid-East and Latin America, the airplane has software that will not let the airframe exceed any of the design limitations. That is G-loading, bank angle, etc. auto throttles anyone? Yeah, dumb them down and teach them how to program the computer, but flying skills, forget it? Pilots in the future will have less of the "guts and adventure" type personalities, but more electronic systems operators. They will board the airplane, electrify the avionics, and MONITOR the airplane from start to taxi, to take-off, to level off, and landing.

Who needs flight training and skills? A lost art.

The other commenters figured out that these younger people who came to the airport, were the lower achievement group who by default, went to the airport. The wizards and smart ones were at the computer gaming locations building virtual reality type sims and taking home the bucks!

Posted by: Michael Dempsey | February 10, 2014 9:30 PM    Report this comment

As an electrical engineer and pilot who has worked in Aerospace for 30 years, I've always been a bit curious as to just how these rankings were determined. I came from a small town in the Midwest with a high school graduating class of 108 kids. Of these there were about 30 of us that went through the advanced math, Chemistry and Physics classes together. Of the 30, only 3 of us actually graduated from engineering universities, a fourth started in engineering and dropped out. In our town there were the brothers Dill, all extremely smart, all maxed out the ACT college exam (similar to SAT but max score is 32). The brother in my graduating class had a scholarship to John Hopkins but decided instead to go to USD and work for Hallmark Cards (I kid you not). The remainder of the "STEM smart kids" went on to be successful but, not in any math or engineering related fields. Although STEM fields pay well ($50-60k/year out of college these days), most kids really don't relish the thought of slogging through 4 years of math and science to then, sit in front a computer 8 hours a day for the rest of their careers. Doctors, lawyers and all sorts of other more "glamorous" occupations tend to attract a majority of kids who would otherwise make great technologists. The Asians have somehow managed to instill in their children the importance of not only a college education but a technical education as well and, between Asia and India, they turn out about 5 times the number of engineers and scientists as the USA. If we could recreate that formula here in the USA then we might have more STEM graduates. The problem lately has been that, my present employer has continually looked for ways to cut cost. The biggest cost being labor and one way has been to hire less expensive engineers in Puerto Rico. The other thing that the company keeps touting is that "all the opportunity and growth is in China" and the small number of us being asked to go to China are doing so to teach the Chinese everything we know about aerospace design and FAA certification processes so they can take over and do it themselves. But I still tout the field and try to get kids excited about STEM, I've worked with a great many people on many interesting projects. To me it's just a lot of fun.

Posted by: Dean Psiropoulos | February 10, 2014 11:43 PM    Report this comment

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