SALT LAKE CITY — Giving kids hands-on experiences can help spark an interest that can result in them eventually pursuing high-tech careers.
To support some of those experiences, officials from Hill Air Force Base on Tuesday helped open a model air traffic control tower in Junior Achievement City located at Discovery Gateway in downtown Salt Lake City.
The tower is part of an interactive learning environment in which students participate in real-life careers in business, government, utilities, and now, the United States Air Force, explained Alison Sturgeon, STEM program manager at Hill Air Force Base. She said the model is aimed at getting more young students to become interested in science, technology, engineering and math fields.
"The tower can highlight the Air Force's need for people to go into STEM fields, especially computer science, because all of our planes are run by software and pilots," she said. "I hope that they get the sense of how incredible our planes are. In fact, the new F-35 has the nickname 'a computer with wings.'"
Clad in olive-green flight suits, Skip Waugh and Seth Ruston, fifth-grade students at Snow Horse Elementary School in Kaysville, were given assignments to work as pilots and computer scientists in the HAFB model tower.
"We were excited for this moment around here in JA City," Rushton said.
"We hope to learn what it's like to grow up and have a job," Waugh said. "We'll also learn how to have a teammate."
The city is run by Junior Achievement of Utah, an organization whose goal is to, "Give students from kindergarten to high school the knowledge and skills they need to own their economic success, plan for their future and make smart academic and economic choices," according to the program's description.
Established in 1956, the organization's aim was to educate students in work readiness, entrepreneurship and financial literacy through experiential, hands-on programs. The programs are designed to help prepare young people for the real world by showing them how to generate wealth and manage it effectively, create jobs that make their communities more robust and to apply entrepreneurial thinking in the workplace.
More than 16,000 students visit Junior Achievement City annually, and Hill Air Force Base's STEM Outreach Program has been working with the organization for several years to help increase the amount of curriculum focused on STEM, Sturgeon said.
"We really wanted to create something that promoted STEM careers and also represented the strong connection between Hill Air Force Base and the community," she said.
The program also seeks to encourage more young girls to consider and pursue STEM education curriculums, she added.
"A lot of times, it's not where they naturally gravitate," Sturgeon said. "I think being a woman in a STEM field is actually an advantage because you stand out in the crowd in a good way and if you do a good job, you really get rewarded."
Sturgeon said companies are finding out that having women on their teams provides a diversity of thought that often results in new ideas that are innovative and forward-thinking.
The model air traffic control tower serves as a visual representation of Hill while the students work as computer scientists and pilots — Two jobs that are critical in today's Air Force, she said.
"Aircraft don't fly without pilots and software," Sturgeon said. "At Hill Air Force Base alone we hire nearly 200 engineers and computer scientists each year." Despite the robust hiring, more scientists and engineers are still needed to fill important positions at the base, she said.
"Hopefully, this will give them an idea of what we really do (at Hill), how important our mission is and hopefully get some of them interested in civilian careers at the base," she said. "You don't have to join the (military) to work for the Air Force."
She noted that 80 percent of the people who work on-base are not in the military, but rather are civilian contractors like herself who support the military's programs.
Hill's STEM program has also helped fund and promote several summer STEM camps for students at Junior Achievement City, explained Christy Tribe, president and CEO of Junior Achievement City.Comment on this story
"It's a great way for kids to see if they take STEM-related classes, what they can possibly be when they grow up," she said.
Junior Achievement City includes 20 model businesses each with about five positions that teach students how each businesses functions, she explained.
"It's a really great opportunity for fifth graders to start thinking about careers they otherwise wouldn't have," Tribe said. "We can simulate the experience (and) it will give them a taste for things they might not otherwise (have known about)."