NBAA2013 News Bureau

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Famed Astronaut, Record-Setting Aviator Tell Students to Stick With STEM Classes

October 24, 2013

To open Careers in Business Aviation Day at NBAA2013, Katrina Bradshaw, executive director of Build A Plane, asked a one-word question to the students attending the final day of the convention: "STEM?" she shouted to the packed room.

"Science, technology, engineering and mathematics!" the nearly 200 high schools students shouted back in unison.

For each of the career day's keynote speakers and sponsors, that was the theme: stick with your STEM classes and you will succeed in the aviation industry.

The career day and the Build-A-Plane Teachers' Day were sponsored by Honeywell, and company representative Mike Bevans explained events like these are vital to the industry.

"We can't do what we do without educated people," said Bevans, business aviation technical sales director. "STEM education programs like this are very important to us, very important to aviation and very important to our country."

To the students participating, from local Sunrise Mountain High School and Rancho High School, an aviation magnet school, the message was familiar. More than half indicated they wanted to be engineers someday, and they listened eagerly to Bonnie Dunbar and Barrington Irving tell how STEM education took each from very humble beginnings to the sky.

Journey of a Cowgirl Into Space

"By many estimates, I should never have had the opportunities I did, to become part of the aerospace industry," said Dunbar, a former astronaut who flew five Space Shuttle missions; worked for Rockwell-Collins, Boeing and NASA; was the president of the Museum of Flight in Seattle; and is currently a professor at the University of Houston.

Growing up on a cattle ranch in rural Washington State, without indoor plumbing until she was 13, Dunbar dreamed of space from an early age.

"I was out working in the fields or rounding up cattle, and I'd be looking up," she said. "I just knew that's where I wanted to be." She could see the Milky Way stretching across the night sky, she read Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, and when her family got a black-and-white television, she'd watch Flash Gordon and Mr. Wizard.

"When I graduated from my small middle school, my eighth-grade teacher asked me what I wanted to become. I said I want to build spaceships and fly in them," Dunbar recalled. "And he told me, ‘You'll need to take algebra.'"

Just like the students at NBAA2013, Dunbar started out by studying algebra in high school, and when she finally became an astronaut, "we spent most of our time studying."

'The Opportunities Are Right in Front of You'

Barrington Irving also started from humble beginnings, growing up in a tough Miami neighborhood and leaving behind a football scholarship to take flight lessons. But he quickly became the youngest pilot, and first African-American, to fly solo around the world.

Irving, now the founder of education nonprofit Experience Aviation, told students he and the other presenters weren't pushing them into aviation careers, just showing them the opportunities "are right in front of you."

"I know you can accomplish amazing things in STEM," said Irving. "Just understand that, of the top 10 careers that will be available in 2020, every single one is related to STEM."