NATCA: Doin’ it for the kids
Thursday, February 16, 2012
Numerous studies have shown that the average American child lags behind their counterparts in India, China and much of Western Europe when it comes to math and science comprehension. A NATCA-sponsored program, and a new smartphone/tablet application have sought to change that, while simultaneously making the learning process fun for students and their parents alike.
Since 2005, NATCA has partnered with NASA to help support their “Safer Skies” Initiative, which is designed to make math and science relatable to children by showing how much the aviation industry relies on it.
Bill Preston, a former FAA manager in Oakland and now the Senior Airspace Operations Specialist at NASA Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley, has helped oversee the development of the program. Preston worked on getting the new, free app “Sector 33,” that was released in January, for the iPhone and iPad with an Android-compatible version coming later this year.
Sector 33, targeted to students in fifth through ninth grade, simulates being an air traffic controller guiding a plane on a westward path from northern Nevada into the San Francisco Bay Area. Using pre-algebra and algebra skills, students are tasked with guiding the planes safely to the ground, while maintaining a safe flying distance from other aircraft.
“This is designed as an educational program for teachers and their students,” Preston said. “What we have seen is, over the past few years, smartphones are becoming prevalent even among pre-adolescents, and this is another way to reach them.”
The overall goal of Smart Skies has been to educate children by engaging them in activities related to the STEM programs: science, technology, engineering and mathematics. NATCA has helped by sending controllers to classes in Wisconsin and California to tell students how they use math and science in ways that are practical to both their jobs and their everyday lives.
Scott Conde, facility representative at Oakland Center and an FAA controller for 25 years, has been working with Ames on their rollout of the program into the Bay Area. He said NASA’s programs are vital in spreading the message of what air traffic controllers do.
“The math we do as controllers daily can be presented to students as ‘here’s why it’s important,’” Conde said. “It’s using air traffic control as a vehicle to get kids interested in math and science.”
Kelly Richardson, Manger of Outreach and Special Events at NATCA’s headquarters in Washington, said NATCA’s goal is to help educate children, while hopefully encouraging them to go into aviation-related careers.
“We’re not out there recruiting kids to be controllers, but we want to promote the profession, like with everything we do,” Richardson said. “What we’ve seen with these programs, when students watch the videos or a controller visits them, they tell their parents, they tell their friends. That can change people’s opinions of unions, and also give both students and adults an insight into what air traffic controllers do, because I think it’s easy to just get on a plane and not think about it.”
The “Kids Corner” section of the NATCA website has a link to the Safer Skies page, where students can view videos that show how course work taught in pre-algebra and algebra classes apply to air traffic control. There are also 90-minute lesson plans for teachers to implement in their classrooms. Preston says he hopes to expand the role of controllers in the classroom going forward.
“When controllers come in and say ‘I use math in this job,’ the kids really respond to that,” Preston said. “We hope to grow more and more so that kids can learn how to do this math in a way that keeps them interested.”
The Sector 33 app is also available for download here and on the iTunes store.