Air Zoo gives science education a seat in first class

From nine airplanes in one hangar to more than 60 air- and spacecraft and more than 200 voluteers assisting the staff, the Air Zoo has grown in the past 30-plus years. Now its horizon is expanding to deepen its commitment to education. CEO and President Troy Thrash talks about what is in the works. Tigers are involved.
If someone asked if you had seen the tigers at the Air Zoo you might believe they had their zoos confused, or rack your brain to remember if one of the Grummans out there is called a Tiger.

Soon such a question will not be odd at all. It won't refer to an exhibit on an aircraft decorated with pointy teeth. It will be about one that teaches the ways bush planes and satellites are used to track tigers as part of conservation efforts to keep the big cats alive.

Air Zoo staff and volunteers are working diligently on Tigers: Tracking a Legend that will present scientific facts that youngsters learn as they explore what will be a 5,500-square-foot exhibit, complete with a 22-foot climbing wall that is full of more educational information to be learned as they climb. (No live animals, though.)

Exhibits that explore meteorology, natural disasters, and scientific themes like what it takes to track tigers are all part of the new direction for the Air Zoo. "These science themes are going to allow us to teach a new type of science and bring in a new audience," says Troy Thrash, president and CEO of the Air Zoo.

Having no love for airplanes is a common reason he's heard from people who have not visited the museum. "There will be lots of reasons to come here even if you aren't into airplanes. We're looking for ways to attract that audience."

Science camps and programs have always been part of the programming, but now they are quickly taking on more prominence.

Take summer camps, for example. Last year, the Air Zoo offered eight educational camps during the summer. That number has been increased to 20 for 2014. Physics, electricity, aviation science, meteorology and earth science are among the topics to be explored.

Air Zoo science programs now can travel to the classroom instead of students making a field trip to them. With its "Science on the Go" program the relationship between the classroom teacher and the Air Zoo becomes stronger.

Teaching moments also can come from projects such as the meticulous restoration work the Air Zoo staff does. Currently, the Air Zoo is restoring an FM2 Wildcat that has been under 200 feet of water in Lake Michigan for 68 years.

The pilot was taking off from an aircraft carrier near Chicago when his engine stopped. He couldn't stop the plane and it rolled off the front of the aircraft carrier, which in turn cruised over the plane, cutting off its tail. The pilot survived the accident and lived until 2008, though he did not live to see his plane recovered.

The Air Zoo already has completed a similar project, having restored a plane that was under lake Michigan for 50 years, so it was a natural choice when the Navy decided it wanted to have the airplane restored.

Local librarians are turning to the Air Zoo for a program called Fizz, Bang, Read after an outreach effort on the museum's part.

And now, educational offerings are proving so popular the Air Zoo is seeking part-time educators to keep up with the demand. "It's a good problem to have," Thrash says.

He saw the potential for such an expansion of the Air Zoo's programs when he arrived in early 2013. As he walks past airplanes such as the SR-71 Blackbird he imagines the potential exhibit that could explain the science of the plane that moves so fast it stretches out by seven inches as it flies.

He describes the classes taking place in an open classroom-type setting that once housed exhibits, and plans to turn it to a real science lab once community partners are found to help get it running. A class from Western Michigan University has helped draft the plans to design the space.

Thrash came to Kalamazoo from the Da Vinci Science Center in Pennsylvania where he helped develop a focus on scientific and technical career development. Now, broadening the educational options is one of the steps being taken to foster such a focus at the Air Zoo.

"When you think about the airplane and the satellite, when you break down the science, physics, chemistry, engineering, mathematics, geography, all these pieces, an airplane is a collection of these things. Breaking it down creates an important context, a real world context for kids.

"If we break it down further, the 21 century is about technology and how fast technology changes. We rely so much on people with the creativity and innovative thinking," Thrash says. Both of those are developed by the hands-on learning that takes place in science classes like those at the Air Zoo.

In keeping with the expanding focus on education, on May 16, the Air Zoo and Western Michigan University will present the Science Hall of Fame awards gala and dinner. The event, during which the tiger tracking exhibit will be unveiled, is a benefit to support the new and expanding regional science-based education and workforce development programs.

Thrash says awards that acknowledge the educational system put a focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) programs that helps them grow.  

"It's deepened our partnership with WMU and the students whose work will be presented is impressive," he adds. "Remarkable work is being done. It makes you feel great about our future."

The awards are intended to recognize high school students, K-12 educators, and local organizations and individuals who are excelling in STEM programs. Hands-on education like that teachers and the Air Zoo are providing can inspire kids to do great things in STEM, Thrash says.

The expanded focus on education at the Air Zoo is all part becoming a key player in the education and workforce pipeline for the region.

For Thrash it's about capturing the imagination of a child.

"It doesn't take much," Thrash says, pointing out that Einstein was inspired when his father handed him a compass that he proceeded to dismantle.

Thrash has seen the power that spark can ignite. At Da Vinci, one youngster asked the question why can't solar powered cars drive at night. The answer has generated international patents and interest from major automotive manufacturers.

"We want to be the place for kids and teachers doing amazing things," Thrash says.

Kathy Jennings is the managing editor of Second Wave Media. She is a freelance writer and editor.

Photos by Erik Holladay