AirFest STEM


Kaylee Clark and Alexis Harvey jumped into the cockpit of Steve Nixon’s helicopter, smiles covering their faces.

The two fifth graders at A.G. Richardson were just two of more than 700 fifth graders visiting the Culpeper Regional Airport for Culpeper AirFest STEM day - a collaboration between Germanna Community College, CCPS and local businesses.

The two young girls smiled broadly, sitting in the cockpit of the R-22, owned by local pilot Steve Nixon. They touched the controls, they asked questions and most importantly - they learned.

“Most of them have not been in a helicopter so it’s a fun experience for them,” Nixon said. “I take a few minutes and explain the controls and then I tell them it’s like standing on a ball, they can reference that.”

Clark proudly recited that information when asked what her favorite part of the day was.

“I learned how to pilot a plane and a helicopter and riding in a helicopter is very similar to trying to balance on a ball,” Clark said. “You have to balance and can’t go one way too much or the other way too much.”

Harvey said she has a real interest in STEM and Wednesday just helped increase her passion.

“My favorite part is the robots and steering them around,” Harvey said. “I like to code stuff.” 

Students received first hand training on robotic exercises, airplane building, solar kit builds experiments in states of matter, magnetic principles and electricity and where electricity comes from. 

Matt Ortman, Instructional Technology Resource Teacher, for A. G. Richardson said that many students have an interest in STEM now and the schools are able to tap into the information they learn at home and expand on it. 

“It’s amazing to see how much they know, a lot of kids come in with a lot because they are exposed to it at home,” Ortman said. “Luckily the school system has set aside money the past couple of years to purchase these sort of things. At A.G. for example we have Spheros, so if they don’t get it at home, they get exposed to it at school.”

He said his students were excited to come out to the airport Wednesday.

“They love it, they look forward to all the different activities,” Ortman said. “They love the hands on stuff they have.”

Jim Charapich, Workforce Development and Community Education for Germanna Community College, said it's important to help students realize what they are having fun with can be translated into a profession.

“It gives them the basis for understanding and awareness for the skills needed for future jobs,” Charapich said. “We’ve tried to bring the latest technology and the latest options out so the kids have a chance to have a hands on experience in learning in an environment that’s outside of school.”

Nixon was just one of a dozen pilots and volunteers who enjoyed sharing their knowledge and passion.

“It’s like anybody who has a profession, they like to share their profession with other people,” Nixon said. “It’s rewarding for us to show other people what we can do and help them get an interest in it. We’re exposing more than 700 kids to aviation, what more can you ask?”

Randi Richards-Lutz, Career and Technical Education Director, said Wednesday is one of her favorite days of the year. She smiled as students raced from exhibit to exhibit - piloting robots, using a 3D engraver, trying on suits at Micron and doing something as simple as building paper airplanes.

The joy in the air was palpable. 

“I love that they not only get to experience STEM, but it’s all hands on,” Richards-Lutz said. “I love that they can use their creativity. The fifth grade teachers have done a great job preparing them ahead of time.”

Richards-Lutz noted that the whole country is gravitating toward STEM and more children are becoming interested in technology at a younger age. It’s important, she said, to tap into that from an education standpoint. 

“The jobs these kids are going to have, they’re going to have creativity and problem solving,” she said. “They are getting skills from things like this that will help them with any career they go into.”

Career Partners helped fund the day while providing volunteers who helped the students navigate the different stations. 

“People don’t realize this is here, but the kids are so excited after their two hours here, they do go home and talk about it,” Richards-Lutz said. “We hope they will bring their parents and siblings back on Saturday.”

Tom Hazel, with the Culpeper Regional Airport, was excited to see the students’ learning at the airport. 

“All of these youngsters have a lot of interest, most of them have never seen a collection of all of this in one place,” Hazel said. “What I enjoy is sharing what I do, I have a riveting class and I enjoy sharing that with the youngsters who have never seen how that actually works,” Hazel said. 

Germanna Community College’s Center for Workforce Development helped coordinate the day, introducing the students to drone flying and local businesses like Nextera Energy and Micron.

Micron’s presentation was a popular one because students participated in bunny suit races - learning how to put on all the protective gear the technology company uses. Micron, based in Manassas and in the midst of a $3 billion expansion, had a host of employees working with the students to spread their love of engineering and technology.

Another popular presentation was where electricity comes from and the job of a line worker, presented by Rappahannock Electric Cooperative and Southside Virginia Community College.

Almost every fifth grader said they were looking forward to attending the AirFest Saturday, their interest piqued. 

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