Southwest pilots go back to school

Airline's Adopt-A-Pilot program helps students soar in math, science

  • Capt. Marc Trider, right, gives Coryon Caldwell the challenge of inflating a balloon weighted down by a book, for a lesson on gravity and lift at Robert W. Coleman Elementary School.
Capt. Marc Trider, right, gives Coryon Caldwell the challenge… (Amy Davis, Baltimore Sun )
April 30, 2011|By Nancy Jones Bonbrest, Special to The Baltimore Sun

Teachers sometimes have a hard sell convincing students that the math, geography and science they're learning today could be used later in their careers.

A mentoring program sponsored by Southwest Airlines helps drive that idea home, while also stressing the importance of staying in school and studying hard so students have opportunities when it comes time to choose a career.

Created more than a decade ago, the Adopt-A-Pilot program allows classes to "adopt" a Southwest pilot who then leads the students through aviation-related activities that incorporate science, geography, math, writing and other subjects.

Each spring, pilots volunteer to participate in the classroom for an hour each week for a month, and also to keep in touch while traveling via emails and postcards. Nearly 50 classes participate in the program in Maryland, while more than 1,400 classes and 850 pilots participate nationwide.

"In 1997, the Adopt-A-Pilot program began as a way to help students understand how what they are learning is applicable in real life, and to identify and plan how to attain their future goals using our pilots as role models," said Debra Benton, Southwest Airlines director of community relations and giving.

Pilot Marc Trider works with students at two schools — Pinewood Elementary School in Baltimore County and Robert W. Coleman Elementary School in Baltimore City.

"The biggest message to the students is just to do well and work hard so you have choices," he said.

Students in the program learn about aviation, perform experiments about aerodynamic lift, gravity and the theory of flight, talk about time zones, and even add up the mileage of flights the pilot makes during the week using an official route map.

Trider works with an all-male fourth-grade class at Robert W. Coleman and with two fourth-grade classes at Pinewood.

"I try to show them how important math and science are in my job, but also for them later in life," he said. "They tend to be very receptive to it."

Michael Robinson-Williams, who teaches the fourth-grade class at Robert W. Coleman, said the program, developed in cooperation with the Department of Education and the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, is inspiring for students.

"This shows them that they can get a job other than being an athlete and do really well," he said. "It's exciting to see [Trider] work with those students and see those students respond. The program isn't above their heads, and isn't too simplistic that they can't think critically."

Pilot Mike Jacobson has volunteered for four years, the last three at Roland Park Elementary/Middle School, where he works with four fifth-grade classes.

"My goal is they recognize that, A, there is a whole world of opportunities of things they can do, and B, I want them to understand the importance of education in being able to achieve their goals," said Jacobson.

Science and math are a big part of the program, said Jacobson, but he also hopes "they come away inspired to do whatever it is that they want to do."

Frank Rappa and Yvette Schreiber, teachers at Roland Park, say the program is a hit with their students.

"It's not just about academics, but also about values to be successful in life," said Rappa. "He integrates all the different subject areas."

During the week Jacobson will send emails about his location and where he flew. In addition to asking the students to add up the miles, he'll also ask them the capital of the state he's in and what national monuments he might have flown over that day.

As for the experiments on the theory of flight, Schreiber says Jacobson keeps it simple and then slowly introduces more complicated theory.

"The kids get it because of that progression he takes," she said. "I think also, that they think it's really cool there's an actual pilot in their classroom talking to them."

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