Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Reaching Out

Last spring, my daughter's school was studying transportation in all its varied forms (yes, the entire school, in a remarkable showing of curricular unity). Among various scheduled activities and visitors, the principal invited me to talk with some classes about aviation.

Asking me to talk about flying is like...well...asking any obsessed prophead to talk about flying.  No problem, right?

Except that the target audience included three second grade classes and The Bear's class. It is not that I am an inexperienced speaker. I've taught college level courses, given talks at scientific conferences around the world, and even run tours at a world class aviation museum. to engage kindergartners and second graders?

As I contemplated my lesson plan, I decided on a few points that I wanted to make and collected photographs to emphasize them.

I learned from the teachers that they had already covered the basic parts of airplanes and the four forces of flight. I have always been fascinated by how function dictates form with airplanes and realized that I could expand on this existing foundation.

I introduced the term "powerplant" and asked the students if they could name at least two types, dropping a hint that two common types were depicted in the picture above.  They had not really thought about the fact that piston (prop) and turbine engines are really there to achieve the same result.

I asked the second graders what the engine and propeller did, calling on the first student that raised his hand. "They generate thrust that pushes the airplane through the air so that air goes over the wings to create lift."

Wow. Yeah! He managed to answer a whole series of questions that I had not even asked yet.

We reviewed the other forces of flight and major airplane parts before I asked my challenge question. "If the engine fails, does the airplane fall out of the sky like a rock? How many people think it will?"

About half of the hands in the room went skyward.

Expecting this, I switched my approach. "What does the engine generate?"

"Thrust!" the group answered in unison.

"What generates lift?"


"So, if the engine quits, are the wings still attached?" Facial expressions revealed a flurry of eureka moments for the assembled students and adults as everyone got it. It was cool to watch.

"The airplane becomes a glider then, doesn't it?" asked my star pupil. I nodded and explained a little bit about glide ratios and how altitude translates to more options in an emergency. I gave an example of how I could fly my airplane a few miles away from the airport, pull the power to idle, and glide it right to the numbers on the runway. This was a revelation to my audience.

I transitioned to another favorite topic of mine: airports. "How many airports are there in the Rochester area? How many people think just one?"

Most of the hands in the room went up. One of the second grade teachers, whose father and brother are pilots, beamed at me with a knowing "I see where you're going with this" sort of smile.

Prior to my visit, I was told by two different faculty members that some classes climbed aboard a private business jet during a recent a field trip (I was envious). The location was described by both faculty as being "down the street from the Rochester airport." I puzzled over this odd turn of phrase until it hit me that the general public (or at least this sampling of it) equates "airport" with the airline terminal, the big steel and glass structure with jetbridges, TSA checkpoints, and the ubiquitous Starbucks.  In contrast, pilots view airports as the entire facility: runways, taxiways, and associated structures including the terminal building.

No wonder smaller airports like Williamson-Sodus or Le Roy don't get any respect, or even recognition as proper airports! It was time to raise awareness about general aviation airports.

With the above photo on the screen, I asked the students, "what is the only thing an airport actually needs to be an airport?" With the answer staring them in the face, they had no problem keeping up with me.

"A runway," a student answered.

"Right!" Then, switching to a new photo, I noted that, "pavement is not required." I explicitly pointed out that control towers, fancy terminal buildings, and Starbucks are also not necessary parts of airports.

Looking at the sectional chart, we counted the number of airports in the immediate Rochester area, including Greater Rochester International. The final sum was significantly more than one! This provided a great segue into my next topic: charts.

From my wife, I learned that the second graders do a unit on maps. I took the opportunity to connect my presentation to the existing curriculum by introducing sectional charts. I let the kids in on a secret: that aviators don't actually use "maps", they use "charts". "If your parents ever say 'map' in relation to flying, make sure you correct them!" The students, particularly the kindergartners, giggled about being let in on some serious pilot vernacular.

I demonstrated how detailed the charts are with examples of how pilots can navigate simply by looking out the window, noting that the shoreline of Lake Ontario is one of the greatest visual navigation aids any pilot could ever want. I left a stack of expired sectionals with the teachers and noted that two were already hanging on the wall of one classroom before I departed the school that day.

I decided to close with an appeal to romanticism by showing some of the wonders that pilots can experience:

A unique perspective on the city familiar to them all.

A warm perch above a frigid winter scene.

It is always so much more interesting to be above fog than in it.

Flying amongst the peaks of the Rocky Mountains.

Peering down through the clear water surrounding the Florida Keys.

Sunsets witnessed from above the clouds.

And, finally, the existence of obscure physical phenomena like glories.

I closed with this image while answering my own question. "Why do I fly? Because it's fun!"

My daughter's classmates turned to her with wide eyes. In the second grade session, one of the students commented, "hey! I know that kid! Cool!"

Overall, I had a great time. The students were well-behaved, enthusiastic, and engaged. The principal took photos of The Bear's class that showed them hanging on my every word. I admit that I frustrated The Bear, though. She more or less looked exactly like this whenever I asked a question and I usually left her hanging to call on one of her classmates instead.

I warned her in advance that I would do this. After all, she already knew all the answers. And now, some of her fellow students do, too.

That was fun!


  1. I love this post. Seriously, everything about it. Job well done, obviously, but it's never anything but awesome to read about how well kids connect to aviation. We've (we = all pilots) got to do a better job of making sure we don't let that excitement fade away.

    Also, I definitely hope to give a similar presentation someday. My wife is a teacher, albeit high school, soooo...

    1. Thanks, Steve. It really was a great experience and the kids really get into it and asked a lot of good questions. I would happily do it again.

    2. The nice thing about high school kids is that they know more and you can connect with them at a higher level. I did a career day for eighth graders a few years ago at my wife's previous school. Try explaining mass spectrometry to a group of students who don't have the necessary chemistry foundation. So I didn't even try and spoke in generalities, focusing on the detective work we do and its outcome rather than how we go about doing that detective work. Older kids would have been easier to speak with in that instance, but probably would not have been as fun and enthusiastic as kindergartners!

    3. For sure, I've been looking for a good opportunity to tie it into something sooner or later. Would be easier if she taught science or physics. Although I don't think I can tie it into the cooking courses (wait a minute, $100 hamburger...) there may be a fit with the personal development or life skills stuff.

  2. Great job! I bet the kids loved it. It's nice that the school explores all avenues of transportation and that the children are exposed to General Aviation. I can just imagine the Bear sitting there wanting to answer the questions, torture I’m sure. ;)

    1. You wouldn't believe some of the stuff they brought to the school for the kids to see during that unit. Food trucks, snowmobiles, a hot air balloon (which they partially inflated on its side in the fieldhouse and let the kids walk around inside it), motorcycles (all the kids in The Bear's class were wearing black the morning I spoke because they were talking about motorcycles that day!), you name it. It was very cool.

      And, yes, I was driving The Bear crazy. I did call on her a couple of times when no one else knew the answer to a question I asked.