As schools across the country work to improve students’ comprehension of math and science, one district in the region is taking those lessons to the sky. A new after-school program at the Aspen School District is using hands-on learning to churn out a new generation of aerospace engineers and pilots. Aspen Public Radio’s Marci Krivonen has more.
Fourth graders Rand and Christian carefully maneuver a remote controlled helicopter around a large gymnasium. Their classmates are nearby, flying helicopters of their own. The boys take turns at the controls and work together on landing the aircraft, which is about the size of a big potato.
Rand is pushing the buttons and moving the joystick. "I like making model airplanes and I like flying helicopters, and it’s a fun class," he says. This class is part of a new program at the school called Aspen AERO AV8R. It was started by Greg Roark. "The gist of our program here is as kids move from the elementary to the middle school to the high school, our philosophy is think, build, do, and so, we want them doing hands-on projects, things they haven’t done before," he says. Each week, Roark has a rapt audience, whether it’s fourth graders or high school seniors. He started the aeronautics and aviation program in Aspen just over a year ago, but it’s only recently started to take off. Now, he says his after-school programs fill up quickly. The kids start small, building model airplanes in elementary school. Then, in middle school, they put together unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones. In the high school program, students build an airplane. Roark’s program even has a flight simulator, so students and staff can train to become pilots. The idea behind all of this extra-curricular learning is to guide students into certain careers. Colorado is a leader in the aerospace industry with 66,000 employees and $16 billion in sales in 2011. Roark says it makes sense to expose kids to such a career. "We as a nation, we need engineers, we need kids. We have friends in the industry who have to recruit overseas because people do not have the technical skills necessary to work in this industry, and that to me, is a travesty. So, this is my little one-man crusade to try and start that groundswell." Doreen Goldyn is the principal at Aspen’s elementary school. She says Roark’s aerospace program brings something different to the day-to-day classroom. "We’re always talking about the whole child, and this just brings more opportunities for the kids to learn and get excited about something," she says. Back in the gym, the elementary school students carefully maneuver their helicopters on “landing pads," or simple square sheets of paper taped to the floor. Roark says it’s good practice for those who years later may do it as adults, each and every day. Roark hopes to take his school program global with live streaming from the classroom. He says many schools aren’t lucky enough to have such a program, so he’d like to open up the lessons to all who are interested in taking flight.