High school students from across South Carolina and neighboring states, as well as one international student, took the phrase “soaring to new heights” literally this summer at an aviation camp in Aiken.
More than 300 academically talented 11th- and 12th-graders competed for 50 slots to attend SOaR Aviation Aerospace Science Summer Camp in early July at the Clemson Youth Learning Institute’s W.W. Long Leadership Center (Camp Long). SOaR stands for School/Student Opportunities and Rewards and, as the name suggests, the camp was created to expose students to the aviation industry and broaden their awareness and interest in study and career opportunities.
SOaR Summer Camp is a program of the Celebrate Freedom Foundation, an organization dedicated to educating children, promoting patriotism and honoring the military.
Russell “Russ” David, director of the SOaR Aviation Aerospace Education Program and an instructor pilot, said programs like SOaR camp help students enhance their STEM skills — science, technology, engineering and mathematics — to meet the growing demand for a highly skilled, technical workforce.
“We emphasize careers in aviation because it’s one of the largest industries in the world,” David said. “Aviation is such a broad field, yet most people, when they think of aviation, think about flying as a pilot. But being a pilot is a very small part of aviation. Just like ‘Maggie,’ Celebrate Freedom Foundation’s Cobra helicopter, it takes 34 people on the ground to support that helicopter but only one pilot to fly it.”
The camp week gave students an up-close view of the diverse opportunities in the aviation industry. They took field trips to Shaw Air Force Base where they saw F-16 fighters, met pilots and aircraft maintenance personnel, visited a control tower and a high-altitude pressure chamber. They also visited Eagle Aviation and the S.C. Aeronautics Commission in Columbia, as well as several manufacturing facilities in the midlands, including Apex Tool Group, where they learned about engineering and manufacturing.
David said attracting more females into STEM fields like aviation is a Celebrate Freedom Foundation goal. This summer, 13 girls attended SOaR camp, including Catherine Zemitis, a senior at Greenville Technical Charter High School in Greenville.
“Science and math jobs are stereotyped as ‘male jobs,’ but we need to get girls more involved, especially in engineering,” Zemitis said. “Visiting Shaw kind of made me want to work for the Air Force and maybe become a pilot.”
She said the highlight of the camp week was getting to fly an airplane.
“I’d only been in an airplane once before, so getting to fly one was taking it to a whole different level,” she said. “It was really cool to see the world from way up high. You don’t see that every day.”
Celebrate Freedom Foundation President Jack Lovelady said programs like SOaR Camp respond to the growing concern that United States is losing its industrial manufacturing base to China and other countries. He added that too few women are represented in the aviation and advanced manufacturing industries.
“We’re not turning out enough STEM-literate students, male or female, to meet the industry’s demand,” Lovelady said. “Programs like SOaR help young people develop critical skills greatly needed in the global workplace. They’ll help the U.S. maintain the technological advantage that is so essential to assuring the health of our nation’s industry and, ultimately, America’s freedom.”
Paul Werts, executive director of the S.C. Aeronautics Commission, said funding a program like SOaR camp is important to ensure that students who have the academic ability and interest, but lack the financial resources, don’t miss out.
“Let’s face it. Education and training in aviation is expensive proposition,” Werts said. “As a commission, we felt it was important to start seeding these opportunities for young people and we’re just delighted the Celebrate Freedom Foundation came along and ecstatic that Clemson has become a part of helping us lay the foundation for the workforce of the future.”
Lovelady said the partnership with the Youth Learning Institute provided a site, staff support and expertise in youth development that proved essential to the program’s success.
“The huge difference about hosting SOaR at Camp Long this summer is the chance for students to develop social skills and work as a team. They’re out zip-lining and in activities together as a team. They are practicing leadership and cooperation. So now we’re really preparing them for the workplace.”
Jorge Calzadilla, executive director of the Youth Learning Institute (YLI), said partnering to run programs like SOaR helps fulfill Clemson’s economic development goals by preparing the next generation workforce.
“YLI is committed to ensuring that every program we develop and operate offers young people a chance to build skills for successful futures,” Calzadilla said. “Young people need to be prepared for a more technical and global economy. This means parents, education and industry must strategically coordinate efforts to ensure our youth have the necessary education, workforce training, and skills to be competitive.”