STEM Field Trips and Inspiring Students: The iFLY Model

By Jessie Grittner, iFLY Portland

Jessie Grittner of iFLY Portland
Jessie Grittner of iFLY Portland

By 2018, the US workforce will be in need of 8.65 million workers in the Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) fields. Schools across the country are bolstering their STEM programs, and many teachers are focused on encouraging students’ passion for these subjects. However, students often see these technical fields as things that exist in a textbook and don’t impact their lives. Finding real-world applications that pique the interest of students may require teachers to take their program beyond the classroom. I've spent the last year helping educators and students break that barrier between the schoolroom and hands-on experience. I manage Portland’s iFLY STEM field trip program, which lets students of all ages learn from – and experience the joys of – flight. Our indoor skydiving tunnel serves as the literal launching pad for a wide range of physics, math, and engineering learning opportunities that make STEM fields relevant and fun. Our field trip model is designed specifically to show students how STEM connects with their daily lives, tie field trips into long-term curricula, and inspire a lifelong passion in students. This program creates an exceptional learning experience because it speaks to a variety of learning styles, creates memorable experiences, and aligns easily with standard curricula. It’s a new design that can be used not only at iFLY or in the STEM field, but across all subjects and learning opportunities.

Teaching to Multiple Learning Styles It’s no secret that educators in the 21st century face ongoing challenges to develop teaching methods that connect with students and fit individual learning needs in inclusive classrooms. Dr. Howard Gardner’s infamous theory of multiple intelligences doesn’t come with version 2.0 that accommodates growing class sizes and changing performance standards, and implementing multifaceted lesson plans has become increasingly difficult. Kinesthetic or visual learners all too often struggle with material when creative teachers are constrained within traditional textbook and instruction strategies in the classroom. We advocate for educational programs that unite segments targeting diverse learning styles into a cohesive lesson, thus ensuring that all students have a chance to excel. The resulting morale boost positively reinforces students’ participation and encourages them to keep going during other challenging portions of the program they may not grasp as quickly. Though our programs vary by age level, iFLY’s instructors are both knowledgeable about the mechanics of skydiving and experienced working with people from diverse backgrounds. Educational offerings include in-tunnel demonstrations of aerodynamics; lessons in the physics of flight; a hands-on lab activity; grade-level-appropriate challenge questions and experiments; and a chance for students to fly in the tunnel. Many teachers have noted that their students enjoy and learn from different components of the program according to their individual knowledge level and interest, and that that enthusiasm keeps the entire class engaged throughout the day’s program.

Memorable Real-World Applications The experience of flight can’t be described with words. It is truly the stuff of dreams, and a first time in the wind tunnel (and a second, and a third) can change a person’s life. Learning about science and engineering through such a powerful and memorable experience can activate entirely new levels of insight, interest, and awareness. Field trips can and should be a way for students to explore content in new, out-of-the-book ways. Classroom learning can feel far-removed from actual everyday life, and the best field trips can bring concepts to life in a few short hours that weeks in the classroom can’t. Students who are excited about the chance to experience the dream of flight will be eager listeners as they discover how the tunnel works, and how the principles of wind speed and velocity will help them take flight later in the program. Teaching through a real-world experience is also strengthened when those giving the lesson are close to the material. iFLY STEM Educators are passionate about skydiving, and it shows with each group of young learners they guide through the program. Students benefit from the inspiration and enthusiasm of someone who loves the experience and knows the science behind it.

Developing Long-Term Education Plans Many organizations offering field trips design them as a one-off visit or standalone experience. But field trips don’t have to be just the kickoff or end of a semester-long program – although they can work well in this capacity. We’ve found, however, that field trips can be a great foundation for creating an effective STEM curriculum. Teachers who bring their groups to iFLY often design their lesson plans in the weeks leading up to the trip around the specific concepts the students will be covering. After the principles are reinforced and demonstrated for students during the field trip, educators can use the following weeks to discuss what the students learned at iFLY as it applies to other areas. Just as important, experiences outside the classroom can be even more effective if they can be repeated with new learning objectives. At iFLY, groups have benefited from programs that bring students back for multiple visits, letting them build upon and reinforce the previous lessons. Lab activities and demonstrations can be customized to create a new experience for the students, while still promising an engaging environment. Other STEM field trip opportunities have the same repeat value; students can use what they’ve been learning since the first trip to build on the previous experience’s principles and better retain the knowledge. When students lift off the ground and are able to see the amazing ways STEM fields apply to everyday life and unique experiences like skydiving, they build up a lifelong pursuit of knowledge and curiosity. We encourage educators to use the iFLY model to create learning experiences across subjects and grade levels, or wherever their curriculum might take them. The best field trips cater to multiple learning styles, create a memorable real-life experience, and work as part of a long-term education plan. When done well, these programs can help any subject matter take flight.

About the author: Jessie Grittner serves as an iFLY Educator and Coordinator for the Portland tunnel. Her combined experience as a substitute teacher and professional skydiving coach has given her the knowledge to bring STEM education to life to the students she works with at iFLY.