STEM is the root of this high-flying field trip to Virginia Beach

Middle and high school students from Bear Grass Charter School in Williamston, North Carolina watch one of their classmates takes flight in the wind tunnel at iFly in Virginia Beach. iFly offers STEM-aligned field trip packages that include two minutes of flight time for participating students (Joshua Weinstein/Southside Daily)
Middle and high school students from Bear Grass Charter School in Williamston, North Carolina watch one of their classmates takes flight in the wind tunnel at iFly in Virginia Beach. iFly offers STEM-aligned field trip packages that include two minutes of flight time for participating students (Southside Daily)

VIRGINIA BEACH — School teacher Ashley Cullipher and 43 students rode on a bus for nearly three hours so they could fly for just two minutes.

Cullipher, a middle school math teacher from Bear Grass Charter School in Williamston, North Carolina, brought her students to the iFly Indoor Skydiving facility at the Oceanfront to take part in iFly’s Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) field trip program.

The program is aligned with the Virginia Standards of Learning, and consisted of lectures on the scientific importance of wind tunnels and the mechanics of iFly’s facility, according to Jason Lavarias, iFly’s general manager.

Lavarias taught the hands-on lab where the Bear Grass students measured their bodies’ surface areas and weight to calculate the wind speed needed to lift them off the ground. Lavarias also performed a velocity test for the students as part of the program, which he demonstrated in the vertical wind tunnel with different-sized balls.

Lavarias said that the lecture and lab topics vary depending on grade level and that they have programs calibrated for elementary, middle, and high school students.

According to Lavarias, the STEM curriculum at iFly was created Dr. Tyler Balak, who has his PhD in chemistry. Balak worked with state officials to align iFly’s program with the SOLs, thus ensuring that iFly field trips would be eligible for school students to attend.

Middle and high school students from Bear Grass Charter School listen to Jason Lavarias lectures on how gravity, surface area and mass contribute to flying in the vertical wind tunnel (Joshua Weinstein/Southside Daily)
Middle and high school students from Bear Grass Charter School perform calculations as Jason Lavarias lectures. The discussion focused on how gravity, surface area and mass contribute to simulated flying in the vertical wind tunnel (Southside Daily)

Students traveled from Williamston, which has a population of only 5,511, according to the 2010 census. The closest major city is Greenville, North Carolina, which is almost 30 miles away. Cullipher said that she has to look beyond their town for STEM field trips such as iFly.

“iFly was the only STEM-aligned program within a four hour drive of Williamston,” said Cullipher. “I look for a STEM trip every year to help inspire my math students to look for math and science-related careers. Last year we went to the ‘Imagination Station’ in Raleigh, which was good, but not as engaging [as iFly]. This is an interactive experience, which I think the students will enjoy and learn a lot from.”

Jason Lavarias, general manager at iFly in Virginia Beach, gives a lecture on aerodynamics to students from Bear Grass Charter School
Jason Lavarias, general manager at iFly in Virginia Beach, gives a lecture on aerodynamics to students from Bear Grass Charter School

As students gathered beside the giant vertical wind tunnel on the second floor of iFly, Lavarias introduced the program to everyone by touching on the scientific nature of our everyday world:

“Anytime you are cooking or playing a sport, you are being a scientist,” said Lavarias, alluding to the heat, energy, fuel, and mechanics of those activities, which would become recurring themes throughout the lesson.

His lecture included discussions on aerodynamics, the laws of motion, energy, and mechanical engineering. Lavarias and the students also discussed wind tunnel science and its contributions to airplane, automobile, and building designs. The program provides classroom resources for teachers as well, according to their website.

Bear Grass students learn lessons on aerodynamics as they practice the proper maneuvers for flying in the iFly wind tunnel (Southside Daily)

After the lab and lecture, students received a brief “flight training” session, where they learn how to bend their arms and legs correctly while in the wind tunnel. Then, it was time to suit up.

Jameson Perry, a 9th grader from Bear Grass, said that flying in the tunnel “felt like there was no gravity, like I was just floating.” He also thought learning to bend your legs appropriately in the tunnel was a bit difficult.

“The labs and lectures were very informational. They really taught us how this things work and how to stay safe when we’re flying” in the tunnel, said Perry’s classmate, Garrett Gardner.

After spinning and flying through the wind tunnel, one student exited with his mouth agape. His classmates greeted him with enthusiastic high fives, but he just stood there, mouth still open. He reluctantly raised his hand for a high five and slowly said, “that was so cool.”

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