Before Eileen Collins became the first woman astronaut to command a space shuttle, she was an Air Force pilot teaching math at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs.
“They wanted me to bring my flying experiences into the classroom,” she said. “Students would say, ‘Why do I need to know this? What will I ever use it for?’
“I’d say, ‘If you’re a pilot, you’ll use trigonometry, calculus, algebra and geometry.’ All those math disciplines learned in the classroom have applications in the flying world.”
As honorary chairwoman of the new Spreading Wings Teacher Flight Program at Wings Over the Rockies Air & Space Museum, Collins preaches the gospel of better teaching through flying.
Thursday night, Collins — who in 1995 became the first woman astronaut to pilot a space shuttle when Discovery made a groundbreaking rendezvous with the Russian space station Mir — promoted the program to community leaders gathered at the XJet facility at Centennial Airport.
The aviation education program gives teachers around Colorado the experience of flight in a 1942 Boeing-Stearman biplane, then sends them back to class with aerospace science curriculum, along with STEM-based activities and educational programs for fellow teachers and students.
More than 70 teachers have already participated, a number expected to rapidly grow thanks to a $250,000 grant from the Emil Buehler Perpetual Trust, which focuses on aviation science and technology.
The goal is that by 2020, one teacher in every school in 17 Front Range counties will have flown in the vintage biplane. About 1,550 teachers are expected to become Spreading Wings coordinators at schools, with the potential to reach up to 84 percent of K-12 students in Colorado.
“This has the potential to be one of the largest aerospace education programs in the country, rivaling things like the Civil Air Patrol, the Boy Scouts’ Aviation Explorers and the EAA Young Eagles,” said Wings Over the Rockies president and CEO Greg Anderson.
In 1992, Anderson founded the Experimental Aircraft Association’s Young Eagles program in Wisconsin, and remembers the reaction when he proposed giving 1 million kids the experience of flight by the 100th anniversary in 2003 of the Wright Brothers’ first flight.
“People did the math, which meant 300 kids a day for 10 years,” and thought it couldn’t be done, he said.
But they met that goal, and Anderson aspires to pull off something similar in Colorado, but with teachers.
Kellie Lauth, the STEM coordinator for Adams 12 Five Star Schools, joined with some colleagues last summer to soar over the Front Range in the biplane.
“It was not only exciting and engaging, it was almost uncomfortable — it involves a bit of risk-taking to engage in that sort of experience, and that (impacts) the experience we want to bring to kids,” she said.
They took the aerospace curriculum back to the classroom, finding the best fit with fourth- and fifth-graders.
“It engages students with all aspects of flight, from basic exploration of space and aerospace to the history and engineering,” Lauth said. “It’s a huge value for us. As we look at STEM and offering pathways to things like aerospace, this curriculum becomes essential.”