Summer School (Part 2): Innovators, Dreamers, and Risk-Takers

The high school students in the In-Flight! program spent a week on a university campus and learned about going to college and aviation careers. They launched model rockets, watched movies, had a talent show, went to the recreation center, and ate pizza well after midnight. But it was not all fun and games. The students discovered that aviation is filled with great role models.

In-Flight! is a program for minority high school students sponsored by the Aerospace Department at Middle Tennessee State University and funded by a grant. 40 students from across Tennessee were selected and flown to the MTSU campus for a week of work, fun, and flying. On the first day, we randomly divided the students into three groups. The groups became known as The Innovators, The Dreamers, and the Risk-Takers. I asked the students to spend some time thinking about what it meant to be an innovator, or a dreamer, or a risk-taker and to see if they could find some examples from aviation history of people who had these characteristics. The groups had different meeting times throughout the week to work on their projects. The program used university faculty and staff to facilitate the groups, but the ideas, thoughts, and work were the students’ alone.

At the end of the week, the groups made their presentations, but to increase the pressure I invited two of the university’s academic Deans to judge the work. The Deans first spoke to the students about setting goals, and reaching their potential. They then had a seat in the front row and the presentations began…

First the Innovators group made their presentation. They believed that Charles Lindbergh was a great role model and innovator. They told the story of how Lindbergh supervised the design and construction of the Spirit of St. Louis. When Lindbergh discovered that the airplane would need more fuel capacity, he sat a fuel tank where the front window would have been. Because the extra fuel tank blocked all forward view, Lindbergh installed a periscope on the airplane. Now that’s innovation!

Next came the Dreamers. They had selected Alan Shepard as their role model. These students believed that to be the first American in space Shepard would have had to be a big dreamer! They relayed the story of Shepard’s inner ear disorder — one that kept him grounded for a time and something he overcame before he eventually walked on the Moon.

They chose Bill Lear as the person from aviation who best represented the characteristic of being a risk-taker. The students quickly clarified that a “risk-taker” to them was not a thrill-seeker but a person who was brave enough to follow what they believed was right. They told the story of the Learjet manufacturer with skits. Did you know that Bill Lear also invented the 8-Track player (one of the students in the skit said, “What is an 8-track player?“).

We asked the Deans to present awards for the group that had done the Best Research, another to the group that made the Most Creative presentation and another award to the group that provided the Greatest Inspiration.

While the Deans were discussing their decision, one of the students came to the front of the room and asked to have everyone’s attention. I didn’t know what was about to happen. Everyone got quiet as the young woman began reciting a poem that she had written during the week:

Hey, In-Flight! help me soar, help me find out what I came here for.
Show me how to reach new heights, let me grow to see new sights.
In-Flight! you are my food, you feed me, teach me, embrace me, show me and fill me with your love.
Without you I’d be a flight-less dove.
A bird without any wings, unable to see new things.
You’ve opened my eyes, and showed me that Aerospace just isn’t for guys.
And for this I thank you.
This is what you’ve done for me, you have shown me how to see.
You have shown me you and I’ve shown you me.
For this I thank you, and you know why?
Because now I believe I CAN FLY!!

Jasmine L. Hathaway 2003

There was not a dry eye in the house – including the Deans.

At the banquet later that night the awards were announced. Charles Lindbergh and the Innovators captured the Greatest Inspiration award. Alan Shepard and the Dreamers took the Best Research prize. Bill Lear and his Risk-Takers was recognized for the Most Creative presentation. But of course all of us in aviation that week were the true winners.

Next time, what a seagull taught today’s high school students.