There is a strong tailwind pushing aviation and aerospace education in the State of Oklahoma, and the Oklahoma Aeronautics Commission is leading a renewed and dedicated charge in that effort.
The endeavor began three years ago in the heart of Pontotoc County when an educator from Ada Public Schools, Paula Kedy, Executive Director Of Academics & Instruction, was approached by their local Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) Chapter to speak to elementary school students about aviation. The chapter shared concerns in relation to their aging pilot community and the need for the next legacy generation of potential aviators to explore flight through the newly rehabilitated Ada Municipal Airport.
From that small suggestion, EAA offered to pay for Kedy to visit an Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) symposium in Washington State at the Boeing high school campus. At the end of the symposium, AOPA encouraged schools to sign up for the You Can Fly Initiative. Ada Public Schools was the first of 29 schools in the nation to field test the AOPA High School Aviation Curriculum.
AOPA, the world’s largest aviation community, identified a gap in aviation youth education and instituted an effort to work with high schools directly, hoping to create a diverse group of students willing to explore aviation. Through their program, they are targeting students that have never been made aware that a career as a pilot or a drone operator is completely within reach.
After initiating the AOPA curriculum, Kedy immediately began building an aviation lab within the high school through the Aerospace and Aviation Education Grant program administered by the Oklahoma Aeronautics Commission. With this program, Ada has leveraged new partnerships with American Airlines, General Aviation Modifications, Inc. (GAMI), other industry partners, and higher education institutes, all in an effort to encourage students to learn more about the aviation and aerospace industry.
During this cultivation period, Ada Public Schools recognized the asset of the program and started with the history of aviation at the 9th grade level. The curriculum is designed for educators to use in a classroom setting and runs parallel to Next Generation Science Standards and State Standards for Mathematics. Now, Oklahoma currently ranks 3rd in the nation insofar as the number of schools teaching the AOPA curriculum.
Each pathway is four years, allowing schools to choose to implement one or more, or select individual courses to use as standalone electives. The difficulty of the course increases each consecutive year expanding upon knowledge required to become a private pilot or Unmanned Ariel Systems (UAS) pilot. Measuring their successes with their students, the school extended the program to their Pre-K students ensuring younger generations could prepare to take the high school aviation classes. By doing this they have effectively created a career pathway for their students.
Victor Bird, director the Commission believes that through industry partnerships and through outreach to educators, parents, and youth, they can inform young people that skilled labor jobs in aviation and aerospace range in pay from $40,000 to $80,000, and can support a very good quality of life in Oklahoma. “Skilled workers that are performing a heavy maintenance check on a 737 at the American Airlines Base or a B-52 at Tinker AFB aren’t just repairing an aircraft, they are in the business of saving lives, and in the latter case, are helping to ensure our national security. Such workers are builders. They make the concepts that scientists and engineers design, realities,” said Bird, a national leader in aviation and aerospace policy. Bird believes that by any and all means possible, the state must effectively communicate their message to parents, young people, and teachers.
Oklahoma Aeronautics Commission’s Aviation Education Coordinator, Adam Fox, wants to see at least 10% of the high schools across the state teaching this curriculum within the next 4 years. “Oklahoma’s second largest – fastest growing industry will benefit tremendously from having our educators teaching about opportunities within the aviation and aerospace industry. The Aeronautics Commission has invested $60,000 into Ada Public School aviation programs over the span of three fiscal years.”
With the spread of the AOPA program to other Oklahoma schools, in the spring of 2019, Sherri McKibbin, a science teacher from Sand Springs High School contacted Fox with a concern. She felt that her students involved in extra-curricular activities were reluctant to take the AOPA course because of the high demand the curriculum requires. She was looking to see if there was anything that the Aeronautics Commission could do change how the State Department of Education classified the AOPA high school course work. From there, Fox began connecting the key participants to address the issue.
Fox said, “In my high school career path, I had one choice that was my own. I was asked if I wanted to take chemistry or physics. My dream early in life was to go into the military as a pilot. So, I chose physics.” Fox, who served 8 years in military aviation and holds a private pilot license, continued, “This curriculum will allow students to make career decisions earlier in life. We see many people now days with little vector or knowledge of what they may want to do to earn a living as an adult. This curriculum opens the door to many possibilities in aviation and aerospace; far beyond becoming a pilot.”
The effort to streamline the process for schools to initiate the AOPA program led to several meetings including a meeting with the State Superintendent of Public Instruction, Joy Hofmeister, and staff from the State Department of Education. The team is currently working toward accepting the curriculum as a core science credit so that students are less reluctant to pursue the course. In launching the new standards, it opens the possibility to have an influx of students, allowing them to focus their high school career on aviation and aerospace if they choose which will prepare them for a career in aviation and aerospace.
“We have seen great success with aviation and aerospace programs in schools, where students are clamoring for more opportunities to learn about one of Oklahoma’s fastest growing industries. Meaningful and innovative business and education partnerships like the one between AOPA and Ada Public Schools are at the heart of Individual Career Academic Planning, a new statewide initiative allowing students to discover and begin building a pathway to their desired careers well before they graduate from high school,” said Hofmeister.
With all of these efforts combined, along with a well-designed public education machine, the endeavor is gaining the much-needed lift to foster future generations to become a successful workforce within the aviation and aerospace industry. Students across Oklahoma are learning about aviation and aerospace through curriculum in the classrooms, participating in hands-on STEM activities with a focus in aviation and UAS technology, and acquiring first-hand experience with industry partners. Fox explains, “With the multiple cogs we now have in place, I cannot help but realize we are making the first major step in the right direction to close the skills gap within our workers while addressing the pilot shortage.”
AOPA’s Executive Director, Elizabeth Tennyson, of the You Can Fly Initiative, who recognizes the pilot shortage and need for skilled workers in the aviation and aerospace industry, stated, “There’s never been a better time for young people to explore aviation careers. We are facing global shortages of pilots, technicians, and maintenance personnel, and the AOPA High School Aviation STEM curriculum was designed to give students a solid basis for discovering and pursuing careers in those and other aviation fields.”
Currently, 16 Oklahoma schools offer the AOPA Curriculum, including Ada High School, Ada Junior High, Braggs High School, Central Ninth Grade Center and Charles Page High School, Davenport High School, Geronimo High School, Gracemont High School, MacArthur High School, McAlester High School, Mustang High School, Okmulgee High School, Owasso High School, Pryor High School, Stringtown High School, Tri County Tech, Bartlesville, and Tulsa Technology Center – Riverside Campus.
The Aeronautics Commission has provided grants to assist schools in receiving the information necessary to successfully deliver the AOPA curriculum to students interested in aviation and aeronautics. The Commission continues to address inquiries from schools across the state interested in the AOPA curriculum, many of whom may choose to apply in the future and to seek grants from the Commission to implement their programs. “The AOPA curriculum is a rocket-fueled resource for state educators to facilitate a young person’s realization that a fulfilling, rewarding career in aviation and aerospace is more than possible after graduation. With these new standards in place, this program is certain to soar,” said Fox.