In January, the first day back from two weeks off of school, my tired classmates and I shuffled into our third block geology class. Ms. Foster’s enthusiasm for teaching and learning is infectious and always livens us up once class has started, but today we needed no prompting: there was excitement in the air. Sitting in the back of the classroom, the product of hours upon hours of attentive labor, was her brand new, Alpha 40 Trainer Remote Control airplane. Ms. Foster led us to the balsa wood plane she had spent all of holiday break building; it was the culmination of a year of hard work delving into avionics. Spanning almost the entire length of the lab table, the orange and white plane sat proudly, as if it knew of its bright future ahead.
Ms. Foster, our resident Science Department Chair, has always been passionate about fostering her students’ curiosity and helping their ideas take flight. However, it wasn’t until having a conversation with a retired Air Force veteran about aviation, when she recognized an opportunity to help her students soar in a whole new way. In September of this year, Ms. Foster had been invited to an air show by a group of her old high school friends who had retired from the Air Force and developed a hobby of flying RC (remote controlled) planes. That day, Foster became enthralled by the airshow and thought about how excited her students might also be about the planes. At one point, she started a conversation with one of the retired pilots and once they got to talking, the pilot asked Ms. Foster about how MPH supports kids’ interest in avionics. To this Foster replied,
“Wow. You know… not a lot.” After thinking about the lack of avionics education, she continued, “We really have misstepped. We’ve not done everything we could do [to support kids interests].”
That night, when Ms. Foster got home, she looked through the science textbook she uses to teach her sixth graders and realized there were no chapters about aviation in the book. Surprised, she looked through more middle school science textbooks for information on flight. In every book she looked through, she could not find a single mention of flight or aviation. There were no lesson plans or classroom resources that existed to scientifically teach kids about flight.
“I couldn’t find a middle school curriculum that addressed aviation – that’s a problem,” Ms. Foster explained.
Convinced this absence of aeronautical science education was doing a disservice to her students, Foster immediately got to work creating a three week curriculum to teach her sixth grade students the following month. She pulled information from all kinds of sources including NASA, The US Air Force, and National Science Teachers Association, including anything that she thought might be helpful to teach her students.
“I just dove into creating a curriculum that made sense to me for sixth graders,” Ms. Foster said.
Her new ideas about teaching aviation to her students were met with nothing but support from the MPH administration. After presenting her new aviation curriculum to Ms. Kendall Hoekstra (the Head of Middle School) and Mr. Jim Dunaway (the Head of School), she was told, “Of course, go ahead.”
Later that month, Ms. Foster embarked on teaching her students the new curriculum she had carefully crafted. Her goal over the next three weeks of the aviation unit was to teach her students the four forces of flight and to get them to think very differently about flight and the physics of aviation. Within a week, her sixth graders had already grasped the concepts and were hooked on the ideas. All of a sudden, with the student’s curiosities as the driving factor, Ms. Foster’s lessons about planes snowballed into actual planes.
“My initial goals were not as grand. And they evolved to be more grand—more expansive— after I interacted with the kids about the topic,” Foster told me.
After that initial lesson, the coming weeks would be filled with planes, planes, and more planes. First up, the student’s built their own small model airplanes which they flew in the Phoenix.
“I found it extraordinary because they were so engaged. There was so much energy, it was just so infectious,” Foster recalls.
After seeing how engaged her six graders were with the planes, she asked one of her retired Air Force friends if he could come into her classroom and talk about his time on the Nimitz aircraft carrier. When Mr. Steven Streeter came in, he brought his RC plane with him and the air in the classroom was electric. The students told Ms. Foster she should get an RC plane at school and learn to fly and Ms. Foster was more than happy to comply.
She got the plane over holiday break and got to work. Foster spent hours upon hours building the plane, tinkering with the mechanics, and regularly asking her pilot friends for help. Starting this new project put Foster back in the place of what it felt like to be a student – something she does as much as possible because she feels it is essential to being the best teacher she can be.
“To stay in touch with that feeling absolutely informs my teaching. There’s no question. How could it not?”
This now brings us to the present, and the next step in the process. With the plane all built, Ms. Foster was ready to learn how to fly. Along with the airplane, Ms. Foster also acquired a computer simulation program that perfectly mirrors the controls and avionics of her RC plane. While the plane she assembled, with its detachable wings and front landing wheels, is forgiving to beginner flyers, it’s still risky to fly without any experience. The simulation provides a perfect space for no-risk flying practice. Complete with all kinds of planes and airfields, this simulation is where Ms. Foster will eventually begin to train her future pilots.
Since she saw how eager her students were to fly, Ms. Foster has become passionate about bringing avionics education to other interested members of the MPH community. Her goal is to someday provide students with an opportunity to fly. Eventually, she even hopes to help introduce an aeronautics class where her students would fly with experienced pilots and leave high school with a real pilot’s license. Right now, though, there are more immediate goals.
As we speak, Ms. Foster is currently putting in hours of training on the flight simulator, readying herself for this spring when she hopes to fly the RC plane for the first time. Foster has planned a special flight field day for her sixth graders once the weather gets nice. She has ten people from the flying club coming to help teach her kids how to fly small electric flyer planes. And of course, for the main event: the inaugural flight of the Alpha 40.
When I asked Ms. Foster how she felt looking back at all the work she’s done and how she feels about the future of the project, a huge grin spread across her face, and she replied, “I’m excited! I’m so excited!”
And this excitement has not gone unnoticed. Many of her colleagues have observed the heightened enthusiasm with which Foster has been teaching since bringing avionics to MPH and have been energized themselves to find something they feel equally passionate about teaching. Ms. Foster tells me that there have been a few moments during this entire process that have stopped her in her tracks. When weeks after initially talking to her, her colleagues came back and told her “I found my airplanes!” she had one of these moments. Something that had started as small as watching an airshow, through Ms. Foster, has created a wave of inspiration for the entire MPH community.
Foster was humbled by the effects of her actions. Always keen to help others, she replied to her fellow teachers, “Okay, make sure you share that with others so that we can get this pretty cool thing going.”
One more lesson from Ms. Foster: Find your airplanes.