Transforming the STEM education equation

STEM Education

“You have been chosen, as part of a select group of teens, to test pilot the latest in Transformer Aircraft simulators aboard the National Flight Academy (NFA) Ambition, at the Naval Air Station, Pensacola, Florida. The missions are real; the challenges are critical. You will have to understand your objectives; chose the transformer characteristics to meet the demands; and pilot the aircraft to mission success. Do you have The Right Stuff?”

Can you imagine the excitement of students who are put in charge of test piloting the latest Transformer Aircraft Simulator? NFA is changing the STEM education equation by coupling inspirational stories of flight with the most advanced digital media and game-based technologies to engage students in meaningful learning experiences framed around the Common Core Curriculum Standards in mathematics and science and the 21st Century Skills. NFA makes STEM relevant, inspiring and engaging to America’s teens in mathematics and science; making the application of this knowledge a key to winning the “game,” and challenging students to achieve excellence in STEM curriculum throughout middle and high school.

We know from significant research that engaged learning experiences are most effective when taking place in a world with a familiar, authentic story (Lave and Wegner, 1991). The NFA curriculum uses real-world “story” or missions as the problem-solving, serious-gaming environment to model why math and science are important. Students will want to learn more instead of asking questions like, “Why do I need to learn this?” or “What do I need to know for the test?”

Americans have long been concerned about the nature and quality of the science “pipeline,” fueled by perceptions that America seems to be falling behind in the production of qualified STEM graduates. In the United States, students are underperforming. The most recent Trends in International Mathematics and Sciences (2007) show that the U.S. has made no significant performance gains in the last four years in science. Our nation is facing a shortage of skilled STEM professionals and as a country we must inspire young people to choose STEM disciplines and re-establish the STEM pipeline. Globally, it is critical that the U.S. maintain a strong position in STEM for ongoing innovation and discovery. It is imperative that we “transform” the STEM education equation creating more students interested in STEM disciplines and future teachers who are passionate about STEM.

The solution lies in the inspiration and engagement of our young people to enter into challenging careers and provide significant opportunities for education. This requires rigorous, inspiring STEM focused programs as well as highly qualified teachers at all levels that are trained in math and science areas. It also requires constant encouragement of our young people to see those in STEM careers as heroes to inspire and model as their career choice. The NFA as a destination for serious gaming in STEM education may be just what we need.

This generation of learners, the millenials, are comfortable in gaming environments and routinely play video games away from school. Many attempts have been made to make learning “fun” and “inspirational.” The NFA approach provides a strong storyline with learning outcomes embedded within the game. Students immerse themselves in their role as aviators, meteorologists, scientists and engineers while planning for and flying missions that always have ill-structured problems to solve.

As well, team competitions similar to BEST and FIRST will put students in situations where they are competing for titles while promoting teamwork and leadership for school teams. This engaging learning environment coupled by team competition is motivating and recognizes that 70 percent of the participants in FIRST competitions expressed an increased interest for careers in STEM as a result of their experience as well as an increased appreciation for teamwork (Melchior, Cutter and Cohen, 2004).

Getting Involved with NFA

NFA’s programs include products for the web, for the classroom, for teacher education classrooms at universities, in museums and at the 100,000 sq. ft facility at the National Naval Aviation Museum. Districts can equip a regular middle or high school classroom for NFA with an Aviation Classroom Experience (ACE) complete with computer-based flight simulators, an air traffic control station and independent student stations to solve missions and prepare for flight.  Schools can also opt for the Aviation Web Experience (AWE) where students engage in missions on the web, flying against others around the country, downloading new missions frequently and contributing their missions for others to fly.

Schools participating in field trips to museums and science centers will be able to have their students access the Aviation Inspired Missions (AIM) program in museums and science centers where students are presented with a mission and have the opportunity to plan the mission — taking into account weather anomalies, wind currents, and more — then fly the mission in a simulator competing against others around the country. And finally, the ‘pinnacle’ experience will be for students to participate in a multi-day residential experience at the Aviator in Residence program in Pensacola, FL.

Several ACE classrooms have already been equipped at middle school, high school and in a School of Education at the University of West Florida. In all cases, students are actively engaged, learning math and science and experiencing learning gains. The School of Education at UWF is using the ACE Classroom to prepare teachers for new ways to teach math and science.

Centers of Inspiration

Gaps in community-based collaboration exist in many communities around the U.S. The intent is to promote regional Centers of Inspiration as the catalyst to work together on common community-based concerns, while at the same time inspiring a generation of students to pursue STEM as a field including a strong focus on underrepresented students. These Centers bring together community corporate sponsors and philanthropic supporters, school administrations, teachers, universities, museums and science centers, and most importantly, parents, to make a combined effort to focus on student success in STEM education.

Lave, J and Wenger, E. (1991). Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. Learning in doing: Social, cognitive and computational perspectives. Cambridge University Press, New York, NY.
Melchior, A., Cutter, T., & Cohen, F. (2004). Evaluation of FIRST LEGO League. Waltham, MA: Center for Youth and Communities, Heller Graduate School, Brandeis University.
Partnership for 21st Century Skills. (2009) Framework for 21st Century Learning. Tucson, AZ: Partnership for 21st Century Skills.
Trends in International Mathematics and Science (2007). Retrieved from: 

Vice Admiral Gerald Hoewing was the 53rd Chief of Naval Personnel, Deputy Chief of Naval Operations (Manpower, Personnel, Training & Education). Hoewing’s current position is President and CEO, Naval Aviation Museum Foundation, the private fund raising arm of the National Naval Aviation Museum and President of the National Flight Academy. He serves on area boards including Columbia Southern University Board of Directors, University of West Florida Military Policy Council, and Pensacola Rotary Board of Directors.
Marc Watson, former President of Universal City Properties and Director of Development for Universal Studios, has significant experience developing a wide range of digital media and simulation experiences for the teen market place, including Jurassic Park, Spiderman, and Hulk. Mr. Watson is blending his entertainment expertise with his past experience as Head of Curriculum Development for the Naval Construction Training Center, to create inspiring and engaging learning environments focused on STEM subject areas.Pam Northrup, Dean College of Professional Studies has been involved in innovation and technology for most of her career leading several institution and state-wide initiatives in distance learning, mobile learning for active duty military and in education in the development of software, STEM-based performance support tools (QuickScienceTM) and web-based products for the classroom. Her research has been focused on how to implement and sustain innovative technology environments while achieving desired learning effects.
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