Fear of flying

February 24, 1992

Fifth-grade teacher Barbara Walters may well be the Amelia Earhart of Hagerstown. She instructs an after-school class for girls called "Aviation Invasion," which aims to pique young women's interest in math and science by teaching them about flying. The girls meet one afternoon a week in an old airplane hangar to talk about flying skills and career opportunities. On weekends, Ms. Walters leads them on field trips to local airports where they meet with air traffic controllers and examine vintage aircraft.

Aviation Invasion is no mere flight of fancy. Parents report that their daughters' self-confidence soared when they joined the program, which is financed by a $5,000 grant from the American Association of University Women. Apparently once girls overcome the natural human fear of flying, not much else can scare them -- least of all tough math and science courses.

That's the point. A recent AAUW report, for example, documented the fact that women students still face substantial discrimination in schools, particularly in math and science classes, where they feel intimidated by teachers' unconscious deference to boys. Math and science teachers tended to assume boys were more "technically inclined" than girls; as a result, they called on boys more frequently in class and denigrated girls' work even when the girls gave correct answers. The study raised legitimate questions about whether boys' higher test scores result from greater natural aptitude or simply reflect teachers' lower expectations for girls.

The regimen of student pilots prepares them not only to handle technical tasks like map reading and navigation but also to negotiate the psychological pitfalls of flight. Pilots literally take their lives in their hands when they climb into the cockpit. Meeting that kind of responsibility confers a tremendous sense of personal accomplishment -- and confidence. There is no quicker method of building self-esteem in young people of either sex than teaching them to fly.

This raises an intriguing possibility: if learning to fly builds self-esteem among teen-age girls in Hagerstown, why wouldn't it have the same effect on inner-city youngsters in Baltimore? Skeptics, of course, will be quick to put down any such proposal: "Where's the money?" they'll ask. But the cost of Hagerstown's program is actually quite modest. Might not some area businesses or foundations come forward to sponsor a pilot program -- no pun intended -- in one or two city schools to see if the idea will fly?

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