Learning Takes Flight With Glider Program

Remember learning about Newtonian physics in eighth grade? If you had to parrot back the laws for a test, you’d probably recall that they have something to do with an apple falling.

Now imagine learning about gravity by flying a sailplane – during school hours! iLEAD Schools, in partnership with Southern California Soaring Academy (SCSA), is pioneering an innovative new curriculum that allows our middle school students to explore the forces of motion through the lens of aviation by flying sailplanes, or gliders.

For the fourth straight year, our students are immersed in a six week trans-curricular project-based learning (PBL) experience which explores their Common Core and NGSS standards through the lens of aviation. Since the project’s inception, we’ve engaged over 2,000 young people through our on site visits, 30 teacher flights (if they are going to teach the content they also need to experience/know it!) and 300 student introductory flights.

A full-scale 60-foot wingspan, DG-505 sailplane is brought to our iLEAD campus, where SCSA crew and pilots work with students in small groups to further explore flight in interactive modules. Later that day, the entire school community has the opportunity to visit with the crew and view the aircraft up close.

Using the Engineering Design Process to build, construct and fly model gliders, young people understand the parts and control surfaces of a sailplane and how that connects to gravity. Learners are able to explain concepts like lift, drag and adverse yaw and in the case of gliding, how to defy gravity. There’s no better way to learn something than to observe and be a part of its active application in our world. This project helps these lessons stick, because they are attached to experiences few of us are lucky enough to have.

Converging at Crystalaire Airport in Llano, CA, every student in the project is invited to experience their first flight and instruction. Not only do these young people experience flight, they also have the opportunity to co-pilot the glider with SCSA’s certified flight instructors.

“Each year, we’ve included more layers to the project, which offers even more opportunities for learners to make connections with the content — the whole goal of learning in the first place,” remarked Kathleen Fredette, Director of STEAM Initiatives
for iLEAD Schools.

Last year, through guided research and a guest presentation by NASA Armstrong Chief Scientist, Albion Bowers, students learned about a cutting edge project conducted at NASA Armstrong, called Prandtl Wing. The aircraft features a new method for determining the shape of the wing with a twist that could lead to an 11 percent reduction in drag. The concept may also lead to significantly enhanced controllability that could eliminate the need for a vertical tail and potentially to new aircraft
designs. This aircraft, in miniature, may also be the first aircraft to fly in Martian atmosphere.

This year, an arduino-based microcontroller will be incorporated into the project, through a partnership with Ardusat. Students will explore coding, electronics and data collection, to develop a small sensor which will collect data during their flight, measuring either pitch, roll, yaw, or G-force. Post-flight and back in the classroom, analyzing the data gives a reason to do math, answering the age-old, reasonable question, “When will we ever use this math this in real life?”

All of the components of the project are aimed at exposing young people to the wide variety of aerospace career opportunities and inspiring them to see themselves in one of those roles.

SCSA and iLEAD will also continue to offer our “Intro to Piloting” course for those students who want to further explore getting their pilot rating.

Susie Pittman, whose 14 year old daughter, Zoe, was part of both the project and piloting course said,“We never could have anticipated the passion this project would ignite under our daughter and we are so thankful she has had this opportunity. We look forward to helping her continue exploring her interest in aeronautics. There’s no doubt in my mind this has been life-changing for her and that she will be flying a glider solo sometime within the next few years.”


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