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Westwood students show the right stuff for prototype STEM aviation program

Posted on Tuesday, March 19, 2013 at 11:32 am

By John Coffelt,Staff Writer

Nineteen seventh-grade students at Westwood Middle School Middle School are getting some pretty intensive flight training each week during a new after-school program sponsored by Arnold Engineering and Development Complex’s STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics) Center.  

The students, made up of an equal mix of boys and girls handpicked for the program by Westwood science teacher Deb Wimberley, are the first locally to participate in the program that reinforces science concepts and spurs interest in technological fields using the principals of flight.

“This is a pilot program…that is the best of both in that it encourages [students] in…aviation and teaches STEM principals,” said AEDC STEM Educational Outreach Specialist Jere Matty.

“It’s a big problem for the country that we don’t have enough people going into [these] fields,” Matty said. “[The base] has number of STEM programs to encourage young folks in these fields.”

The curriculum was developed by Fly to Learn, based the commercial flight simulator X-Plane.

During class, the students see how the science concepts carry over to a computerized aircraft.

Last week’s lesson covered a wealth of complex scientific principals illustrated simply through the students stalling their aircraft.

Volunteer STEM instructor Bruce Buono, a former Air Force pilot with about as many years teaching all levels of mathematics, explained to the students how air flowing over the curved top of a wing moves faster than the air traveling past the lower side, creating lower pressure that sucks the craft airborne.

Simple enough concept – it’s Bernoulli’s principle and it generally explains flight, but as the students learned Tuesday, principal varies in practice.

That’s where the flight simulator, one powerful enough to be used in grounds schools to teach aspiring pilots, comes in. Along with Newton’s third law of motion (That’s the one about equal and opposite reactions).

A plane flying level is overcoming gravity with lift. Imaging the two apposing forces as lines. Gravity is pulling strait down, while, according to Newton, lift is pulling up at the same but opposite angle. (Thrust and drag are also at work, but let’s focus.)

The students adjust their flight simulators to show lift generated along the wings of a computerized Cessna as green lift vector lines. These lines are 90 degrees from the wing and the ground.

If they pull back and cause the planes to climb, the green lift lines shift back, showing how gravity gains the advantage and the plane begins to lose lift. Pull back enough and the plane stalls.

The students were able to see exactly how and when climb turned to a stall then recorded related data through workbook questions.

“The idea is to teach the students science, technology, engineering and mathematics,” Buono said. “The purpose [of the program] is to use some of the thing you learn about in flying to teach science.”

He said that another lesson covered how takeoff weight affects flight performance.

The students practiced taking off, then varied the weigh of the plane to see how it affected how far the plane traveled along the runway and the airspeed at takeoff.

“After [the students] gathered all that data, just like in a math or science class, they were asked to plot it. So they did some basic skills that they learned in science and math that applies in aviation.”

The students will soon design their own aircraft.

“We’ll change the length of the wings, fuselage, the engine that it has and the gross weight and see how the aircraft flies and record similar data.”

He said that it great to have such a large group that shows that much interest.

“Engineering and science, that’s where the jobs are,” he said.

“Anytime you get kids that are enjoying it and learning, that’s a positive.”

“I’ve about thrust lift and the pull of gravity,” said program participant Dashawn Gates,

The students are in the pilot’s seat for discovery.

“[Buono] shows them respect by letting them getting them go and doesn’t tell them ‘now push this and push this,” their teacher says.

“They don’t need that. They’ve done so much on a computer they know exactly what to do.”

Seventh-grader Hannah Jenkins said that she participates because she thinks it “is very interesting.”

She enjoys “learning the correct way to fly a plane.”

Although her career goals lie in the biological side of science the procedures the class uses to gather and record data will carry over into other classes.

Buono said that one of the best moments for teachers is when they see understanding play across a students face.  He said that is a common sight in the after school program.

At the STEM Center, Matty lauds schoolteachers as a crucial part of the partnership.

“The linchpin of the whole operation is [Wimberley] who volunteered to put this together. With each of the programs, we can provide funding and volunteers to help out, but the linchpin … is the teacher who volunteers to get the kid together and make sure there is a safe environment, etc,” Matty said. “It wouldn’t have happened without her.”

He said the aviation program is going very well. He hopes that the program can be implemented in other area schools.

The Fly to Learn platform in use is geared for middle school students. A program for elementary students exists and one for high school students is being developed.

The base purchased one-year rights for 20 students. The Stem program is funded through Headquarters Air Force.

The list price of the program built on the X-Plane 9.0 Package, including Fly To Learn curricula, up to 20 copies of X-Plane 9.0, access to the library of Fly To learn videos and additional S.T.E.M.  Materials is $400, according to the Fly to Learn website.

All of the STEM instructors are volunteers.