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Aviation STEM center opens in Beaufort County

In Beaufort County, STEM education is about to take flight – literally.

On January 30, a ribbon-cutting ceremony was held to celebrate the opening of a new STEM center with a focus on aviation at location right by the Washington-Warren Airport property.

The ground was broken for the 6,000 square foot building in September 2016, but has experienced delays due to weather incidents like Hurricane Matthew and soil issues.

The space will be dedicated to exposing 11-to-15 year-old students to aviation science, technology and boating, as well as a fitness component, said Alvin Powell, president of the Beaufort County Police Activities League.

“We will work on a holistic approach, where we expose kids to science and aviation and boating, but also expose them to life skills and being physically fit,” Powell said.

Powell said there will be unique equipment inside the building, purchased with funding from the Burroughs Wellcome Fund and the NCDOT aviation division, including an aircraft simulator, wind tunnels and 3D printers to demonstrate the hands-on components of science.

Al Powell, Executive Director of Beaufort County Police Activities League, sits in front of the organization’s Redbird Flight Simulator. Robert Kinlaw/WUNC

Powell said they are the only nonprofit in the world with a full motion plane simulator that is dedicated exclusively to showing youth the “wonder of flight.” Most similar simulators would be found in university settings.

“We want to make the program fun for the kids, and emphasize to them why they need to stay in school and look at science and technology classes,” he said, “and have confidence in themselves that they can do anything with the right preparation and mental attitude.”

The concept of aviation-based STEM education is an idea Powell has worked on since 2012, beginning with gathering funding for a one-week summer camp in June 2012, he said.

In 2015, he said the Burroughs Wellcome Fund gave the Beaufort County Police Activities League a three-year STEM grant that allowed expansion into after school programs and a four-week summer camp program.

Burroughs Wellcome Fund has recently given grants to fund Beaufort County Police Activities League STEM programs for 2018, 2019 and 2020.

The Police Activities League is a national organization with a mission to prevent juvenile crime and violence through building relationships among kids, local police and their community.

Beaufort County broke from the tradition of PAL groups bonding with children through athletic activities by entering into a science and technology based mission through aviation and boating.

Until this year, the city of Washington has allowed Beaufort County PAL to use some of their space to host these camps and activities. Powell said the city came to them with the idea to help provide land at the airport for a building.

Beaufort County PAL then raised the money for the building, which can now host the STEM activities that have impacted the youth of the area for the past several years.

Over the summer, Beaufort County PAL’s four-week summer camp will take place using the facilities in the new building, as well as exposing kids to swimming lessons, snorkeling, on top of aviation and boating education.

The camp would typically cost around $1,600 per kid, but the Burroughs Wellcome Fund covers the cost, Powell said.

Once the facilities are up and running, Powell said he hopes to extend the programs to other counties in the region and create custom weekend programs.

Tom Freeman, an aviation safety specialist with the aviation division of the NCDOT, said the intriguing thing about the PAL program is that it takes a “360 view” of the youth in the area by nurturing them with boating and aviation skills, and also combatting health issues that could hinder them from getting a job in the future through fitness training.

“There’s 123,000 aviation jobs in the state, and I think what we’re really trying to capitalize here in the state is getting to that young workforce,” Freeman said. “Sixty percent of the aircraft maintenance workforce is over 50 years old.”

Freeman said there is a great demand for pilots and air traffic controllers in North Carolina, and programs like Beaufort County PAL’s are crucial to capturing young people with energy and enthusiasm for this kind of STEM.

“To grow up here, and then live and learn here, and then work here, is really what we are looking at,” Freeman said.

Editor’s note: Burroughs Wellcome Fund contributes to EducationNC.

Sara Kiley Watson

Sara Kiley Watson is a graduate student of environmental studies and journalism at UNC-Chapel Hill. She is a product of Wake County Public Schools, having attended Hunter Elementary, Ligon Middle, and Broughton High School. Her work has been featured in Popular Science, IndyWeek, and ExitEvent.