The Learning Jet — being readied to open its cabin doors and cockpit as a classroom this fall — is a unique new community asset for St. Paul. The former Boeing 727 cargo plane is helping transform what’s been described as a once-sleepy corner of the St. Paul Downtown Airport into a potential “cluster” of aviation-education programs.
The effort represents an opportunity to engage more people with an airport in their own back yard, according to Metropolitan Airports Commission spokesman Patrick Hogan. The facility, also known as Holman Field, is the fourth-busiest airport in Minnesota, and a community resource that often goes unrecognized.
The site also is a timely fit with a key drive in education — the STEM movement that encourages students in science, technology, engineering and math — and with a coming need for workers in aviation careers. It’s fitting, too, that our airport, the metro area’s primary facility for private business aviation, serves such hometown STEM-field leaders as 3M.
The Learning Jet is owned by the Minnesota Association of Women in Aviation, which has worked with the St. Paul school district — in particular, St. Paul’s Farnsworth Aerospace school, which offers grades pre-K through eight on two campuses. A grant from federal tax money is funding work on the plane and preparation of the curriculum that Farnsworth students will be the first to “pilot.”
A separate group, AirSpace Minnesota, has announced plans for a “STEMport” site in hangars adjacent to the Learning Jet, creating a STEM-education “destination” serving school and youth groups from around the Upper Midwest.
Its Aviation Learning Center, the first to replicate a program developed by the Museum of Flight in Seattle, includes a hangar where students would develop a flight plan, chart a short flight and perform a pre-flight safety inspection of an actual Cirrus aircraft. In a “simulation bay” they would use advanced software to virtually navigate their route.
Other space, according to a report this week by the Pioneer Press’ Tom
Webb, could involve a robotics center and hands-on construction area where students could design and make models and other items with the help of 3-D printers and software.
“We don’t have enough opportunities for students to see the possibilities, and to see people doing things that they, too, could do if they had the correct skills and pathways,” said Kristi Rollag Wangstad, AirSpace Minnesota’s president.
Also near the site is a public observation area recently opened by the airports commission.
There’s a hope, said Dennis Probst, its executive vice president, “that these entities, and perhaps others who may surface going forward, can create … excitement there at Holman field.”
That’s a good thing for the community, he said, “but selfishly, a good thing for the airport to get people out there and excited about aviation.” Frankly, Probst said, “it’s somewhat difficult for young people to get involved in aviation.”
Matt Kramer, president of the St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce, brings perspective from a business community concerned about the future workforce: “Airports in the post-9/11 world have become areas that not only are restrictive, but areas that actively discourage folks from standing around, watching things.”
The result, he said, “is an entire industry that we’ve made off-limits for young people, and this effort will go a long way to helping restore the element of discovery that young people should have with the magic of flight.”
For students, such a real-world opportunity “starts making your dreams come true,” said Hamilton Bell, principal at Farnsworth’s campus for grades 5-8.
What’s more, the site offers close proximity to four basic modes of transportation, via air, water, rail and highway, he said. “This is a hub,” where programming will help students make both STEM and career connections to help them envision their futures.
The Learning Jet puts Farnsworth at a leading edge, Bell said, recalling an observation from one of his students, with which we concur:
“Man, Mr. Bell, this is really cool!”