Aviation Camp inspires curiosity, helps Muskegon County students soar

Most of the kids who attend Aviation Camp have never been on an airplane. Some have never been to an airport despite living just miles from Muskegon County Airport. 

This exposure is one of the main focuses of Aviation Camp, which is spearheaded by Orchard View and Montague schools and includes middle school students from across Muskegon County. In fact, the camp has three focuses — or steps, as Cathy Cantu, director of innovation for the Orchard View district, calls them.

Step 1: Find a good, solid instructor. Cantu found that in Nick Kunnen, InnOVative Learning Center leader for Orchard View Schools. 

“Nick is very design-thinking and has a project-based learning perspective,” Cantu explains. “He encourages the kids to be curious about what makes things fly.”

Step 2: Select middle school students who are interested in avionics or mechanics to help keep them engaged as they explore various career pathways and expose them to potential jobs that can keep them in Muskegon.

Middle school students use the online career matching tool Xello every year to see what skills and careers most interest them. The students who are most interested in avionics or mechanics from Muskegon County schools are identified to possibly attend the camp. 

Step 3: Choose students based on equity and inclusion. In other words, select students who wouldn’t otherwise have the opportunity to learn about or have these experiences. 

“We try to look at this from a ‘how do we look at and target an underserved population in Muskegon County?’ perspective,” Cantu says. 

Connecting kids’ skills with their futures

Aviation Camp started in 2019, skipped 2020 due to COVID-19, and returned in 2021, which is when Cantu stepped in. Her job — and goal with the Aviation Camp — is to help make school relevant for kids. And with a field as broad as avionics and a local airport like Muskegon’s, she says Aviation Camp is a great way to help kids connect their skills and dreams with their futures. 

The camp runs half-days (8 a.m. to noon) Monday through Friday for one week in June and accepts only 25 students. Every day consists of a featured speaker, who talks about their career within aviation.

“We have a diverse group of individuals and professions — from ground crew and baggage claim to engineers and pilots,” Cantu shares. “We are intentional about the faces and skillsets we put in front of the kids so they are exposed to a variety of people and career paths.” 

Each day starts with a question from Kunnen that revolves around being curious about how something works and solves problems for others. The entire week is focused on hands-on learning. 

Exhibition day

One day involves traveling to the Oceana County Airport in Shelby, which is a publicly run airport, where the kids get to meet and talk with local pilots about different planes and how to work on them. Another day is Airport Day, where the kids learn how an airport operates as its own small city. The last day is an exhibition day of learning. 

“On the last day, the kids present what they learned throughout the week based on their curiosity,” Cantu explains. “We invite their families and people from the community and give the kids a whiteboard and markers and let them tell us about their experiences.” 

The students also get to ride in an airplane on the last day, something Cantu says many have never done. Most of the kids land with the biggest smile, she adds.

“I love the whole week,” Cantu says. “But I really love watching the kids' faces light up when they get to see an airplane up close and personal. They get to really step on the wings, get in the cockpit, and see so much.”

Bridging a gap

It’s a unique experience that brings kids together to bridge the gap between school and the professional world. 

“The number of kids from different school districts and different age groups working together is amazing,” Cantu says. “Watching the parents who can come that Friday as they watch their kids go up in the airplane … everyone glows.”

The week is put on with the help of many volunteers, the Muskegon Airport, and facilitation from Airport Director Ken Efting, Kunnen, Cantu, and Jim Perrault, principal at NBC Middle School in Montague. While Cantu would love to expand the program, its focus makes it difficult to scale quickly. 

“We would love to be able to offer this to more kids, but the experience is what makes it amazing, so how can we scale it in an appropriate way?” Cantu explains. “What we would ask for is to have more people come out during their exhibition of learning and more volunteers to share their experience and/or career pathway if it has anything to do with aviation. Or, if you have the ability to financially support the project, we’d love to chat with you.”  

This year’s Aviation Camp will run from June 19-23.
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Read more articles by Kelsey Sanders.