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2018 Vol. 18, No. 1

Airplane-turned-classroom aims to spark interest in aviation

Sitting on the tarmac at the St. Paul Downtown Airport, the 727 doesn’t look like a typical classroom. That’s the idea.

airplane flying

The Learning Jet, as it’s known, is a renovated Boeing cargo aircraft that serves as a unique classroom for K-12 students from across Minnesota. This learning environment gives students the chance to see a large aircraft up close, touch the landing gear, sit in the captain’s seat, move the throttles, and read the altimeter, among other tasks. Not only can kids see how big a jet airplane’s tires are, they can literally kick them, too.

The cargo jet was retired and donated by FedEx to the Minnesota Association of Women in Aviation (MnAWA), which runs the Learning Jet program. The MnAWA is a nonprofit organization supporting activities that educate and inspire students in the STEM disciplines—science, technology, engineering, mathematics—with the additional subject of aviation/aerospace (“STEAM,” as the organization calls it). MnAWA president Darlene Dahlseide says the educational program currently focuses on aviation, although curriculum will be expanded to include railway, freight, waterway, and bike/pedestrian transportation modes later this year.

airplane flying

A typical field trip to the jet begins with a brief presentation inside, followed by age-appropriate curriculum and hands-on activities. Older kids, for example, might learn about the laws of motion by launching balloon rockets.

“The kids are just so excited about being in an airplane,” Dahlseide says. “Everyone who comes through gets to sit up front on the flight deck…We make it fun. We really want that ‘wow’ factor.”

In addition to getting kids interested in aviation, which could lead to a career in the field, the organization hopes to spur kids—especially those underrepresented in STEM fields—to realize “that if they put their mind to something, they can do whatever they want to,” Dahlseide says.

airplane flying

Dahlseide estimates that the Learning Jet has hosted about 2,700 students from schools across the state since it opened in October 2014. Last summer, about 900 students participated; 31 of those were middle school students attending the National Summer Transportation Institute (sponsored by the Center for Transportation Studies, which houses AirTAP), who spent an afternoon field trip in the jet (see photos, right).

At the St. Paul airport, a 3,400-square-foot hangar near the Learning Jet is being renovated to serve as additional classroom space, with a planned opening this spring. Not only will the hangar accommodate more groups of students, but it will also allow classes to be held year-round (currently, classes are held March through October). Dahlseide noted that the hangar renovation project has received about $350,000 worth of in-kind donations of material and labor.

For more information about the Learning Jet, visit the MnAWA website: mnawa.org.

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