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Ellen R. Delisio headshot

Reaching Kids Early Is the Key to Driving Interest in STEM, Educators Say

Aviation High School driving interest in STEM

(Image: Students at Aviation High School, the largest public aeronautical high school in the U.S.)

Most of us know that jobs in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields are in high demand: Economic projections indicate a need for up to 1 million more STEM workers than the U.S. will have available in its workforce through 2022.

Introducing children to these subjects at an early age can help to close the so-called “STEM gap” while opening up a college education and well-paying jobs to more young people nationwide, educators and researchers say. 

“It’s important for youngsters to start at the elementary-school level,” Mario Cotumaccio, assistant principal of Aviation High School in Long Island City, New York, said of STEM education. “The sooner it is incorporated into the curriculum, the better, as early as pre-kindergarten and kindergarten.” 

Aviation High School has prepared young New Yorkers for technical careers in the aerospace industry for more than 80 years. Within specialized fields such as aviation in particular, “Exposure is the biggest factor, especially for inner-city kids, who rarely see what an aviation technician or aviation mechanic does,” Cotumaccio told us. “It’s about having them feel different career clusters and do career shadowing at an early age.”

The school works with professionals and companies in the aviation industry to connect students with mentors and provide hands-on learning opportunities. With an office a mere mile from the school’s campus in Long Island City, JetBlue and its aviation and STEM-focused Foundation are key mentoring partners. Hundreds of JetBlue crewmembers are alumni of Aviation High School, and now they’re paying it forward by regularly volunteering as student mentors and sponsoring field trips to New York airports. 

Although students work on planes in class, many have never stepped foot on one or been inside an airport. Working side-by-side with crewmembers also gives students a glimpse into the day-to-day life of aviation professionals and allows them to see themselves in the career, as some say the field trips are the first time they’ve seen pilots of color. These trips also provide awareness of the many career options available within an airline,  according to JetBlue. 

“One third of U.S. companies report job openings and can’t find skilled workers for technical positions. A strong STEM foundation will be critical as these students enter the workforce,” said Marco Nogueira, director of quality assurance and chief inspector of technical operations for JetBlue. 

“Mentorship and access are the key differentiators that help the JetBlue Foundation make a true impact, whether it’s ensuring students have skills for well-paying STEM jobs upon graduation from high school or the opportunity to further their education through college,” he continued. “As the JetBlue Foundation Ambassador to Aviation High School, I have the honor of working with students and administrators to provide a direct pathway to JetBlue’s talent pipeline and workforce.”

Why STEM? 

STEM programs are particularly important for students in high-poverty, urban school districts, research finds. Graduation rates remain much lower in these districts compared to the national average, as students grow discouraged by under-resourced schools and a lack of opportunities to attend college.

Focusing on specialty and vocational training has proven to help keep students, particularly those from underserved communities, engaged. And data indicates that reaching students at an early age determines if they enter STEM tracks at specialty and vocation-focused high schools.

According to research from the Association for Career and Technical Education (CTE)—a national association representing CTE professionals—students involved in CTE programs are more engaged in school and graduate at higher rates than their peers in traditional high-school programs. Students in CTE programs have an average graduation rate of 93 percent, and more than 75 percent of those graduates go on to postsecondary education not long after high school. 

Technical schools prepare young learners for success 

One of the country’s most successful technical high schools, Aviation High School has built its reputation on a demanding curriculum that has evolved with the industry, educating thousands of the city’s underserved students. It boasts the longest school day in New York City, from 7:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.  

A Title 1 school, the enrollment is 42 percent Latino, 39 percent Asian, 12 percent white and 4 percent African-American. The female population is on the rise as well, Cotumaccio said, at close to 20 percent of enrollment, and the school provides support for female students. “We have shadowing, field trips, female mentors and we have female professionals come into the school and make the subjects very tangible for them.”

Aviation has a 90 percent graduation rate, and about 80 percent of graduates go on to college; many become pilots and enter engineering, law enforcement, business and aviation law. 

The school’s proximity to John F. Kennedy International Airport also offers students the chance to train alongside aircraft mechanics and technicians. However, the majority come in having never touched a screwdriver. “They are quick on computers, but have difficulty using tools,” Cotumaccio said. “This is a replacement generation; it becomes difficult to impress upon them that things can be repaired.”

Most of the entering students have some type of love for aviation, he added, although they have not settled on a career. “Many are interested in piloting, creating, designing; we help them to work toward their goals.”

Driving interest in STEM: Opening the door for postsecondary education and successful careers 

For those who want to pursue careers in aviation, the jobs will be waiting, Cotumaccio added. Together with Vaughn College, a four-year aeronautics and technology college in Queens, Aviation High School graduates more than 20 percent of the U.S. supply of new aviation maintenance technicians, a field that will need more than 100,000 new workers over the next 20 years in the U.S. alone.

“There is going to be a tremendous shortage Boeing is predicting in terms of aircraft technicians, pilots and teachers with these types of skills,” Cotumaccio said. “There are definitely opportunities for kids with aviation flowing through their blood.”

Aviation High School was one of the JetBlue Foundation’s first grant recipients. The two organizations continue to work closely together, and JetBlue’s Aviation High School internship and apprentice programs have provided hundreds of students with the opportunity to learn about the aircraft mechanic track, while working side-by-side with JetBlue technicians. 

The JetBlue Foundation is accepting letters of interest for grants from STEM and aviation-focused partners for the Fall 2019 grant cycle through Oct. 12. Click here to learn more.

This article series is sponsored by JetBlue and produced by the TriplePundit editorial team. 

Image credits: Aviation High School and Hanson Lu/Unsplash

Ellen R. Delisio headshot

Ellen R. Delisio is a freelance writer and paraeducator who lives in Middletown, CT.  Over the past 30 years, her writing has focused on life science, sustainability and education issues. Ellen is an avid reader and beach-goer.

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