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I started an after school STEM program (FFRC)!


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As the title states, I was able to start an after-school STEM program at my local high school. The reason I'm writing this is twofold: first, I would like to blog this journey for posterity. Second, I would like this program to grow not just within my school but also to other schools. I imagine a future where this program could reach the level of robotics or supermileage, where students throughout the region can meet up and fellowship, share ideas, and compete in the interest of learning about Science, Tech, and Aero. I want you to be inspired to follow a similar path to me, in order that together we can grow the Flite Test community and show the value of this amazing hobby.

I'm going to break this blog up into posts, this being the first about how I got the pieces in place to begin the program. Comments are encouraged! They will help me find the motivation to write about this topic.

A quick bit about myself, I started the hobby in October of 2017 when I built my first Simple Cub. I've always wanted to fly RC airplanes but never had the means growing up, but when I discovered Flite Test and how inexpensively I could get in the air I couldn't resist! Since then I've scratch built 15 and counting FT designs and even gotten into big balsa models.

As my airplanes began to grow I found that I needed a field to fly at. I joined my local RC club (Millersburg RC in northern Indiana) and found a great group of guys that were a lot of fun to be around. Many of them are the older type, retried and flying really nice aircraft, but they were quick to adopt me into their fold. As time went on it was clear that the club would only have a few years left if some younger people didn't step in and carry the torch. This, coupled with my desire to pour into the next generation and get people excited about aviation and engineering, led to me sending an email to my local jr/sr high school (Fairfield) asking if I could start up an after school STEM program. They were very enthusiastic about the idea and I had support from the management, but I still had to jump through hoops to make it happen.

First, they did a background check to make sure I wasn't a crazy person. Then there was the matter of finding a place to fly. The school was less than a mile from a municipal airport, so I contacted the airport and tried to work something out with them. After a few months of going back and forth nobody was willing to assume liability, and flying at the school was nixed. I then went to the members of the club and they offered to give free membership to any students in the STEM program! I just had to get certified to drive the activity bus so we could get to the field. I sat down with the principal and the shop teacher and we found a place within the school to meet. All that was left was to get some funding. The school was generous to help us out getting started, some club members donated from their pockets, and a local small business that is passionate about flight (many of the owners have pilots licenses) called KMC Controls helped by donating to the club. I recognize that I was very fortunate to have all these sources for funding to get launched, and it would have been very difficult to do so without the generosity of my community.

By this time, it was February of 2019. The next task would be to find students to join us in the program. I was looking for 8 students to pilot the program, and we held a callout. Around 20 or so students attended the callout. I brought my @Mid7night F-16 and @nerdnic Spitfire to show off to the students, and they asked a ton of questions. I was very excited about the enthusiasm I saw, and a week later I had 8 signed forms for students who wanted to join the club.

Fairfield RC (FFRC) was born.


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Launch & Semester 1 Part 1

This first semester would be a giant learning process, and I hope to express my mistakes in a way that those reading this thread might have an idea of how not to do things. In the end, we did have a successful program thanks to students who were enthusiastic about model airplanes and flying. This semester, we would meet after school for two hours on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

During the application process I found that none of the students had experience with fixed-wing flight but some of them had played around with toy-grade drones. I decided to start from scratch. Day 1 I printed out a full sheet of vocab terms and we went over a powerpoint where I described the basic principles of lift, drag, etc. and different aspects of the hobby such as sport, 3d, racing etc. Then we went over vocab. While all the students seemed to engage with the material they definitely had trouble retaining any of it. I hypothesize that this was due to the sheer volume of what I was trying to teach, and the absolute lack of application for them at that point and time.

As stated in the last post, we had 8 students sign up to launch the program. By the end of the first week, I hadn't seen two of the students and they ended up never attending a meeting. This was okay as it turns out six students was plenty for me to handle on my own, especially starting out. Five of my students were 7th and 8th grade, while one was a Junior. This was an interesting dynamic. I thought the Junior would be discouraged to be several years ahead of his clubmates, but instead he served as a pillar of the club, exemplifying good behavior, a willing work ethic, and a high standard of craftsmanship relative to the other students.

After the first week I had sourced some foamboard and we started making chuck gliders out of Sparrow, Long EZ, and similar FT plans. I put the students in pairs to work together on an airframe. Students cut the parts from plans and did the building from the FT videos. This went really well. The students took about twice as long to finish the designs as I had anticipated, but that's something I've been getting used to over the past year. Once they finished them they had twice as much fun as I thought throwing them around in the hallways and behind the school. They learned about airframe balance as they added and removed nose weight. We discussed how the different airframes behaved differently and theorized about what aspects of the model caused these differences. They were surprised that the heavy Sparrow flew as well as it did.

Because it was cold outside I figured we would try and fly in the gym, using small brushless motors and 5g servos to make profile airplanes. I had never built such an airplane, but I figured we could sort it out in the months we had waiting for good weather. In hindsight this was a poor use of our time. Seeing as how the students had very little building experience and no design experience it was very challenging for them to grasp the idea of a profile foamy even after I did my best to explain things. Not only that, but we did not have the techniques developed to build light and slow. I had the students again work in teams. One team (the one with the 11th grader) understood the goal and cut out the profile of an Extra, glued it together and hooked up control surfaces. It did fly in the gym, but it would not slow down very well and ended up lasting about four very short flights before it ripped a wing off. One team downsized a blunt nose versa. This never flew inside because it was too fast, but it ended up working for outdoor flying although not well. The third team had a personality conflict and ended up splitting up to work on different projects about a week into the project. One student built a mini mustang and the other began to work on the next project.

In hindsight I would never ask relatively new students to do something I myself haven't tried, such as making an airplane that can fly indoors. My students were gracious however, and nobody complained about the project, but one particular student was proving to be particularly adversarial to the other five. My attitude at the time was more of a "boys will be boys" attitude. I wanted to treat them as adults, which they were not. I failed to properly address his harassment of other students and in the future I will not tolerate such behavior. I want to teach my students not just about the hobby, but also about how to behave like responsible people, showing kindness to one another and working together to make amazing things.

At this point the weather is starting to get nice and we began brainstorming ideas for a field day that we would have at the end of the semester. I wanted them to work on what they were most passionate about. At this point the students had maybe two flights each on the buddy box with my personal Simple Cub. I kicked some ideas around and they decided they wanted to do a pylon race and aerobatics. Other events would be limbo and a spot landing contest. Not understanding how challenging it is to learn to fly for most people, I decided to go along with what they wanted. This would turn out to be a less than ideal decision.
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Launch & Semester 1 Part 2

My students decided they really wanted to do a pylon race for their first semester. I thought "sure, they can learn how to fly on FT warbirds." Well, that mindset ended up giving them enough freedom to get in trouble. Two of my students took my suggestion to pick an FT warbird to heart, and we had an FT Spitfire and FT Mustang. These went together well and are still flying today. My highschool student wanted to build, for his second scratch build, a NerdNic P-39. Thankfully he worked on this at home and was able to complete it, and it actually did pretty well, but that was only because of his practice and work outside of the program. A fourth student really wanted to build a BF-109, and he found plans on the forum. There was no build guide, and he had a lot of trouble getting everything to fit. On the maiden his wing folded in the takeoff climbout. Even after he rebuilt the wing it never did fly very well.

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The students also wanted to do an aerobatics competition. One student in particular was very excited about aerobatics, so he built a Baby Blender. It was a good build for him, but he barely had enough time to build it and the maiden was 10 minutes before the field day.

Other events that we planned for our field day included a limbo contest, a static judging contest, and a spot landing contest. One of the six students was not able to attend the field day, so the other five went at it. There were four contestants in the pylon race. One student was maidening his airplane this race, and they all had limited stick time. At the launch two of the four airplanes immediately crashed. The Spitfire made it about a lap until its wing folded, and the nnP-39 made it all five laps to win the race, however, the pilot had limited landing experience and accidentally hit the safety fence at the far end of the field.

For the aerobatic competition I buddy boxed with the pilot of the Baby Blender in order to save him in case of an accident. A few minutes into the flight the wing came unseated from the fuselage and the airplane dropped from the sky. The glue joint had not been sufficient. The Mustang made an attempt at an aerobatic run, but a low loop caused a premature landing that put it out of the competition.

This left the students with no airplane to fly for the rest of the day, so the final events were cancelled.

In all of this the students had a spectacular attitude. They treated the airplanes as they were, silly pieces of foam that were repairable and replaceable. I commend them all for how they put on a show and did such a fantastic job. For me it was a giant learning experience. I learned:

  1. Your first build should be simple to build and easy to fly (not a warbird)
  2. Give your class twice the time you think they need to do the projects they have to do
  3. When students are just starting out, make sure they do builds with thorough, well documented build videos
  4. During the field day make sure students have a backup airframe
I am fortunate enough that the students wanted to come back, so we continued the program after the spring of 2019. I will continue to write about this in posts to come!
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