Focus on Education: The Learning Jet

December 30, 2014 No Comments
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Now Boarding The Learning Jet: Future Mechanics and Engineers

by Melissa DeBilzan

It’s not your typical classroom. Then again, it’s not your typical aircraft.

toc_columns50pxA retired Boeing 727 at the Saint Paul Airport has been transformed into a teaching tool to bring science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) to life for students of all ages in Minnesota. On any given week, a preschool class could be learning how to measure the wingspan of an aircraft, followed by a high school class learning how to calculate the co-efficient of the plane’s lift.

Dubbed The Learning Jet, it is the first program of its kind in the country. It holds the potential to get thousands of Minnesota kids excited about careers in engineering and technology—similar to the robotics programs many educators have embraced.

“We’ve developed a curriculum that’s as hands-on as possible,” said Darlene Dahlseide, president of the Minnesota Association of Women in Aviation (MnAWA), which owns the jet and oversees the project. “We want kids to be able to see, touch and experience STEM subjects in a whole new way, and hopefully inspire them to pursue a STEM-related career.”

In 2013, the MnAWA received a $100,000 Garrett A. Morgan Grant from the Federal Department of Transportation to develop a multi-modal transportation curriculum and renovate a jet into a classroom. In July 2013, FedEx donated the Boeing 727—a retired cargo jet—so that it could be converted into a pre-k–12 classroom.

As Dahlseide walks through the jet, she excitedly points out what students will see and learn.

“Kids will be asked to point out various components, such as a stringer,” she said. “But the day’s activities will be tailored to meet teacher requests. For example, if a teacher is doing a unit on understanding radio waves, students may use the jet’s radios to dial in the frequency and listen to the air traffic controller. Then, on a different frequency, [the students] can listen to the weather information for their location.”

Although the engines have been disabled, students can touch virtually any part of the aircraft, step inside the cockpit, and operate certain controls that govern lighting, wing flaps, and other functions.

Many students have never boarded an airplane, let alone have been introduced to the science and engineering behind aviation. Now, their wait will be over. Dahlseide announced in November 2014 that The Learning Jet is completed, and that the jet will be available for test classroom sessions starting in January 2015.

Teachers can choose to have their students attend for a full day or half day aboard the jet, for a field trip experience that also includes curriculum-based learning. This curriculum will engage students before, during, and after their visit to The Learning Jet. This hands-on experience for students integrates the “fun” of a field trip with the knowledge and instruction that students would receive during a normal school day.

The Learning Jet also will be available for daily or overnight rental for private events. The jet has the capacity to accommodate 20-50 students comfortably, and students now will be able to participate in a full classroom experience while onboard the aircraft.

Preparing for Take Off

When students step inside the carefully engineered and manufactured structure, there is no shortage of discussion materials or questions. One look around the jet can prompt a discussion with students about why some parts are made of aluminum or composite materials, how all the parts were assembled, and whether certain controls are powered by hydraulic pressure or electricity.

Much like manufacturing, the aviation industry is bracing for widespread worker shortages as Baby Boomers retire. By offering in-depth courses on the basics of flight, navigation, and systems training, MnAWA hopes to inspire the next generation of pilots, air traffic controllers, mechanics, and aerospace engineers.

The students’ experience aboard The Learning Jet will focus on any number of topics, such as flight planning, navigation, or systems training. MnAWA is hoping to raise enough money to add a state-of-the-art flight simulator inside the jet soon, which would allow students to learn and experience the basics of flight without ever leaving the ground.

For now, the focus will be on the aviation industry, which continues to grow each year. Over the next decade, some experts predict aircraft annual production levels will increase by 25 percent. In Minnesota, for example, Cirrus Aircraft saw a 10 percent increase in production from 2012-2013, and watched their market-share grow to an all-time high.

A strong transportation infrastructure is vital to Minnesota’s manufacturing industry. If workforce development efforts are successful with tools like The Learning Jet, the sky is the limit.
For more information about The Learning Jet, visit

Melissa Debilzan is a contributing writer for IntrinXec Management, Inc. She can be reached at

Copyright © 2014 Minnesota Precision Manufacturing Association. For permission to use or reprint this article please contact Molly Barrett, publications manager for Precision Manufacturing journal.


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