Aviation, STEM-based Learning on Display at Arrowhead Air Show

The roar of a jet engine washed over the crowd of Arrowhead Elementary School students, teachers and staff gathered on the school's lawn in the early morning hours of May 8.

That considerable racket boomed from an aircraft that hardly seemed as if it were capable of making such a ruckus. The Turbine model is a miniature RC plane, a craft with a wingspan of less than 25 feet. Even so, it runs on jet fuel and can reach speeds of 200 miles per hour. Its ignition rings with all the volume and drama of a real plane, and it spews an impressive column of smoke in its wake.

Brian Neff, a flight instructor from the Wings Over the Rockies Museum, guided the plane via a remote control across the grass at Arrowhead, reveling in the loud response from the crowd assembled for Arrowhead's miniature airshow. Those impressed responses came despite the fact that Neff wasn't able to actually make the Turbine take off – because of the proximity of residential homes and because of the need for a 700 to 800-foot runway to land the plane, Neff merely taxied the craft around the grounds.

"The jet takes a lot of room," Neff said. "It takes a big approach to land, and there's simply no room here. Also, you shouldn't be flying over houses," he added with a chuckle.

Notwithstanding, Brian and his father Tom Neff, the associate vice president of the Academy of Model Aeronautics, offered plenty of sights to impress the assembled onlookers. They piloted two other RC crafts through the air above Arrowhead, one that dropped miniature plastic paratroopers and foam missiles and another that resembled a flying dinosaur. All of the airborne theater of the event had a simple but powerful lesson at its heart.

"The key thing is to get these kids enthused about aviation," Brian Neff said. "It's to get them to say, 'I saw an airplane fly today' and to really create an interest, to have them consider that they could make a career out of it one day."

The Arrowhead teachers specializing in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) have been working throughout the year to impart that same message. A recent unit on aviation and aerodynamics saw students building their own miniature aircrafts out of simple materials and learning about the foundational principles of flight. After the airshow on May 8, students from all grades reported to the school gym to take part in aviation-related activities.

The interactive aviation event was possible thanks to a grant from the Cherry Creek Schools Foundation, which is dedicated to funding opportunities for all students in the district in innovative ways and helping build partnerships within the community. Thanks to the Foundation's support, students were able to connect scientific theory with real-world flight.

According to Arrowhead STEM teacher Shelia Phillips, the combination of real-world experiments and the impressive displays by the Neffs connected theory with practice when it came to learning about the science of flight.

"We've been learning about the four basic principles of flight and we've made several basic planes," Phillips said, adding that students from different grades constructed their own gliders and rockets. "All classes have done it, and we all learned about aviation. It's been quite a year."

Indeed, the work spurred students like Anna Kravitz to think about the larger possibilities of work in aviation. Kravits, a fifth-grader at Arrowhead, said the yearlong study of STEM and its connections to flight could have rewards that last far beyond elementary, middle and even high school.

"I feel like science is an important topic for us to learn," Kravitz said. "When we grow we'll have to learn a lot of science. If we want jobs that have something to do with programming, for example, a lot of that early science learning will help us."

For Brian Neff, a strong background in STEM guided his later professional path. An activity as simple as building an RC plane and watching it climb into the air permanently affected his life's work, and he hoped the displays at Arrowhead had a similar effect for students in all grades.

"It's the fascination of knowing that you can sit there and build something on a workbench and have the gratification of seeing it fly," Brian Neff said.