Students get their wings

Geography, math explored as pilot visits local school
By: Megan Wood The Press-Tribune
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If you’ve ever wondered how much an airplane weighs or how fast it travels, ask Whitney Lelis. She’s one of Kim Walker’s fifth-grade students at Crestmont Elementary School participating in Southwest Airlines’ nationwide Adopt a Pilot program. Lelis and her classmates learn math, science and history from their adopted pilot, Bill Schlecht, and coursework provided by Southwest. The students learn geography as they plot Schlecht’s flight plans on a map and from there, use math to compute distances and fuel usage between destinations. “It’s interesting to see how the things that we learn in school you use when you’re older, just in a different way,” said student Jaden Bradford. They are also learning the state capitals, a fifth-grade requirement, through Schlecht’s flight destinations, which he routinely quizzes them on. “Last week I flew into an airport in Nebraska. Who can tell me the capital of Nebraska?” Schlecht asked. As Schlecht touches down in 60 cities across the nation, Walker’s fifth-graders use their knowledge of time zones to decipher how long flights between zones will take. The students also complete research and writing assignments that they present at Schlecht’s visits. One assignment asked the fifth-graders to identify personal role models, a main focus of the program. Schlecht was pleased when a majority of the students named family members as people they look up to rather than pop culture icons. “I liked talking about our role models because I learned about people in my class,” Bradford said. “Like my friend’s grandpa fought in World War II and I didn’t know that, because we don’t talk about stuff like that. It was cool.” Over the course of four visits to the school, Schlecht uses personal experiences of his 35 years of flying to show the students how the education you receive as a child is important when accomplishing personal goals and finding a career, which is the key message of the program. “It’s important for kids at this age to have the opportunity to see someone different from their teacher share their experiences and get enthusiastic about what they do,” Schlecht said. Walker likes that the program has the kids thinking about the future and possible career options. “It encourages them to see beyond tomorrow and start thinking about their future, how to get there and how education will play a part,” Walker said. Bradford has his heart set on a career with animals, while Megyn Hallman is considering following in her mother’s footsteps to become a fighter pilot in the Army. The program was presented to Walker at the beginning of the school year by parent and Southwest employee Michelle Lelis. Although the program was developed in 1997 and involves more than 800 classrooms nationwide, many teachers usually learn of the program through Southwest employees. “I thought it was a really neat program that tied in with our curriculum as well as the life skills and guidelines that we teach,” Walker said. A short-term goal the class is looking forward to is the contest that wraps up the Adopt a Pilot program. Participating classrooms nationwide are asked research and profile different careers that the students might consider in the future. The project requires the class to work in teams and be creative to submit a cohesive winning entry for the class. The competition is steep with more than 170,000 students fighting for the prize. And what a prize. The class that comes in first wins a “flying” field trip for the class and chaperones to a nearby Southwest city. “When reaching for goals you should never give up,” Lelis said. “My goal is to win the contest.”