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At the Aviation Academy: Attitude = Altitude

Dr. Aaron Smith, the program director at Aviation Academy, which is a pioneer in STEM Education. Author, Awakening Your STEM School, provides a blueprint to transform their magnet program into an elit








Dr. Aaron Smith
Program Director
Aviation Academy

Over the past five years, I have had the privilege of participating in some phenomenal events. I talked with astronauts onboard the International Space Station, visited companies such as Huntington-Ingalls and Alcoa-Howmet, and interacted with some incredible professionals who are committed to improving the education of our children.

When you combine these experiences with teaching high school students who want to learn about manufacturing, I feel like a very lucky man. I have also come to realize that I do a lot more than just recruit students to a magnet program; I have the ability to guide and inspire students by sharing my knowledge of STEM and manufacturing.

You see, I work at the Aviation Academy, which is located along the runway at the Newport News Williamsburg International Airport. We have one simple motto at the academy: “Attitude = Altitude.”

We recognize that our students are not perfect in any way, shape or form. However, it is up to us as educators to raise their awareness and knowledge so they reach their full potential. Being in the academy is not always easy for some of our students, but they realize that success will come once they graduate. Our students want to be challenged and engaged in meaningful lessons that allow them to use their senses; they grow with excitement and enthusiasm from things that resonate with them.

Our students learn about STEM, aviation and aerospace through piloting, aircraft mechanics, engineering, computers and electronics. They spend part of their day at the airport and the other part at Denbigh High School. I no longer see students when they enter the halls. Instead, I see our future engineers, pilots, electricians, and mechanics.


Hands-On Education

One place I see this transformation is in our maintenance lab where students work on a RV-12 plane. Our first shipment of equipment came in two years ago and it has been a teacher’s dream. Just like a job in the real world, students had to apply for a spot on the team by submitting an application and interviewing with a staff member who would oversee the project. From there, students were either hired or put on a wait list until they proved that they were ready for the job. An honor roll student even learned a valuable lesson early on as he submitted his application one day late and was not hired to join the original build team—even though he was more than capable of performing well on the project.Dr. Smith is watching John adjust part of the dashboard so that it fits better. The dashboard will be fastened to the framework.

We finally assembled the team and broke them into groups so the work could be completed over the course of the day instead of a specific period of time. At first, the students were hesitant to start; however, they slowly but surely crawled out of their shells and began to work on the project.

Day after day, the team would check in, get their safety glasses and gather around the blueprint. Then they would inspect the task card to match it up with the blueprint and quickly gather their tools. At this point you could feel a synergy and pride from this assembly. There was a constant exchange of communications, and rivet guns could be heard in the maintenance lab and hallway. All you could hear was the buzz of drills as the students proceeded to fasten rivets. All of a sudden you would hear the rivet gun pop!

These activities carried on for 80 minutes, but the time seemed to quickly fly by. Calicos that once held together ribs to sheet metal were put back on the board as the project transformation began to take shape. Before leaving for the day, students from the first shift marked their task card with the projects they completed, so the next team could pick up from where they left off. This daily process has helped reshape our school’s culture.

Teachers could not complete task cards quickly enough for the students who eventually bypassed the cards and began to look at the blueprints and take over the plane build. Today, teachers merely guide the maintenance of students, instead of directing them. After a few short months, the framework and ribs have begun to take shape into the vertical stabilizer and the wings. It is still hard to believe that our kids have used over 10,000 rivets on this project so far.

Nothing is more powerful than observing the same quality of work from our students regardless of gender or ability. Having gifted students working elbow to elbow with special needs and English language learners is absolutely priceless. There is no difference in the quality of their work and they all understand each other and work well as a unit. I am even humbled to see young ladies in the lab as their teachers tell the male students to watch their peers and learn their secrets on riveting, drilling, cutting, etc.


Critical Support

Outside of the classroom, we get a lot of support from our community. Thanks to local SME Chapter 217, we are able to provide students with opportunities in STEM and manufacturing experiences. The chapter has partnered with us on many levels. Chapter president John Edwards invites our staff to attend monthly meetings and he has paved the way for our students to gain a better grasp of the manufacturing process. Members of Chapter 217 also visit our campus each year to present us with scholarship funds for one of our graduating seniors. The Hampton Roads SME chapter has even paid for several SME student memberships, which gives students a whole new level of understanding of the manufacturing process and future opportunities.

We are also fortunate to be one of the high schools in the Partnership Response In Manufacturing Education (PRIME) network. As part of this network, we are able to interact with schools across the nation. Thanks to our partnership with SME and the Education Foundation, we are able to implement another facet of our wind tunnel, which elevates our students to a new level of thinking and learning.

Students whose projects and activities are used in the wind tunnel have stopped asking “why” about the process and have started asking “how?” Changing this mindset permits students to take ownership in their learning, and this is when students begin to have pride, satisfaction, integrity and honor in their work on the project.

Manufacturing gives students a chance to combine the best of both worlds—education and manufacturing—and it gives them insight into future jobs in the 21st Century that will not only make them successful but guarantee that the quality of manufacturing products in America will be second to none.


This article was first published in the January 2016 edition of Manufacturing Engineering magazine. Click here for PDF.


Published Date : 1/6/2016

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