Imagine a 14-year-old leading a squadron of jet pilots on a search and rescue mission in the Gulf of Mexico. At the National Flight Academy (NFA) in Pensacola, Florida, this happens all the time. Well, it appears to happen. The NFA, a program of the National Naval Aviation Museum Foundation, is a groundbreaking immersive virtual reality camp for 7th to 12th graders that teaches vital STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) skills in a completely innovative and entertaining way. It also focuses on real-world skills that are necessary for success: critical thinking, problem-solving, teamwork and effective communication.
The "serious play" (an interactive participatory experience with a defined educational purpose) takes place onboard a state-of-the-art simulated aircraft carrier, Ambition. The 102,000-square-foot, 4-story space is landlocked, but students would never know that, given the high-tech virtual world that surrounds them with realistic sights, sounds and smells. Ambition contains a galley, mess deck, flight simulator bays, berths, Ambition Experimental Pilot (AXP) lounges, and activity rooms. The physical surroundings and innovative missions were created by a team of the best and brightest from the fields of higher education, game and simulation development, and the entertainment industry.
Although NFA is onboard Naval Air Station Pensacola, it is not sponsored or funded by the Navy, and does not promote the military. Rather, its mission is to stimulate excitement about STEM skills—to inspire students to return to school revved up about STEM, hopefully pursuing higher education and careers in those fields.
"They may [find out they are] really good at meteorology or geometry and that helps them make decisions about a career," said Pam Northrup, dean of the college of professional studies at the University of West Florida and NFA consultant.
Aviation-inspired story engines drive the students' missions, which are always non-combat situations such as rescue operations or disaster response. Immersed in these compelling real world missions, they must utilize technology, think critically, work together, and problem-solve at a fast pace.
"And then we throw in something unexpected like survivors in the water, so that they have to deviate from their plan. They have to use geometry, geography, trigonometry — things pilots use all the time," explains Chip Yarbrough, Program Director.
"High-tech and engineering are what have made this country different, and we need to regenerate that enthusiasm if we are going to lead the world like we have done for so many years," said retired vice Adm. Gerald L. Hoewing, Ambition's commander, President of the National Flight Academy.
The NFA's Aviation in Residence (AIR) program offers 5 1/2-day live-aboard sessions during the summer and school breaks, as well as weekend programs throughout the school year and field trip opportunities for local students. Scholarships are available. For more information, visit www.NationalFlightAcademy.com.