Amidon-Bowen students with DOT presenters. Photo: Lydia Mercado

Armed with model airplane kits, VFR navigational charts, air traffic control maps and hands on activities designed to show the general overview of aviation careers, US Department of Transportation (DOT) Mentors presented an exciting experience to Amidon-Bowen 4th and 5th graders.

Lift, gravity, drag, wing, fuselage, nose and tail – terms that help the students understand how an airplane flies – were introduced and the role each contributes to making an airplane fly explained. The practical application of these concepts came home when the students made their own model airplane and experienced the effect of lift and drag on the shape of an airplane wing.

The students were then asked to consider the differences in traveling in an airplane and in a car on the ground. Could a pilot use a street map? Many years ago pilots would fly close to the ground to literally use street signs and read the signs on buildings to figure out what town they were over. VFR sectional charts were used to conduct a scavenger hunt to show how pilots have to find their way to their destination. They have to know the height of mountains, the names of big bodies of water such as lakes and rivers and the location of airports and their runways to safely get to where they are going and safely land. Aeronautical charts help them in all these ways. The students were shown the comparison of paper maps and GPS digital maps and shown how this is similar to GPS in automobiles.

The last exercise provided students with a map of the United States divided by air traffic control areas. They learned that at every hour there are about 5000 airplanes in the sky over the US. The way air traffic controllers move all these airplanes in and out of the various airspace divisions is much like moving players through a “zone” defense in a basketball or football game. As the plane moves through the sky the controllers pass on the responsibility to the controllers for the new air space. Students got to see how this works using an air traffic simulator that enabled them to make decisions and “line up” two planes safely with proper spacing, and maintain “on time” arrival when their flight paths intersect in the air space.

Secretary Ray LaHood, a passionate advocate of mentoring, launched the US DOT Youth Employee STEM (YES) Mentoring Program in September 2011. It is designed for students in Kindergarten through high school to encourage students to pursue education in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) and become aware of the opportunities to apply these skills in transportation-related careers. The YES Mentoring Program provides DOT employees with an opportunity to mentor students of various ages, offer an introduction to transportation in our nation and provide career exploration in a fun, interactive way. Under the YES Mentoring Program, DOT employees will be permitted to use an average of 2 hours per week of administrative leave on a volunteer basis to mentor students on STEM-related activities. Examples of activities in this program could include helping with STEM programs at local schools, organizing or judging a science fair, coaching a student engineering team, participating in career day activities and conducting transportation demonstrations. The program will bring monthly sessions to Amidon-Bowen featuring transportation career opportunities.

By Meg Brinckman, a longtime contributor to The Southwester on education issues.

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