Story & Photo by Roger Neumann
Originally printed in the December 2012 edition of Mountain Home magazine and reprinted in the Star-Gazette
There are more computers than airplanes today, and more teaching room than hangar space at what once was called the National Warplane Museum. And the emphasis on education is only growing.
You can still call it a museum, as its president does, but more and more the focus at the Wings of Eagles Discovery Center is on using aircraft, and other flight-related objects, as teaching tools to inspire young people to learn. In fact, a brochure describes the center as “a regional science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) academy.”
Mike Hall, the president and CEO, said the center owns about thirty-six planes now, many of which are stationed at the Elmira Corning Regional Airport. He said that while the aim of the museum years ago was to stockpile old warplanes, this is no longer a goal. Only a few planes stand outside the museum now, with several others inside.
A former fighter pilot, Hall understands the importance of the planes but says, “We had to find a way to make these artifacts that were a part of history relevant to the future.”
Hall said the transition in the mission began around the middle of the last decade. It was motivated by the realization that: (1) the old planes appealed mostly to members of an aging (and fading) generation and (2) the center was in a strong position to help fill the gaps in the teaching of STEM subjects to future generations.
Hall, a retired Air Force major general, still sounds like a man with two stars on each shoulder when he says: “I think our number one security threat is a failure of our country to prepare our future generations for the world in which they’re going to live. The United States of America right now, by any measure, is somewhere between twenty-fifth and fiftieth in terms of preparing its young people to meet the technical challenges of the global economy. If we don’t change that, we’re not going to be the top dog.”
The Wings of Eagles is doing its part. Now located at a former indoor polo arena at Airport Corporate Park in Horseheads (and still in the renovation process), it had a grand opening last November, with Elmira native and former astronaut Eileen Collins as the guest speaker.
The museum has a large open space in its 30,000-square-foot display hangar for science fairs and displays of students’ projects. It has a learning center equipped with five recently-acquired air traffic control consoles that were free Federal Aviation Administration surplus, along with computers and whiteboards that were free school surplus acquired through BOCES (New York State’s Boards of Cooperative Educational Services). Teachers are being sent into schools and hosting groups of students—mostly from the Corning, Elmira, and Horseheads districts for now—for lessons that lean heavily on projects rather than lectures.
Hall said the STEM subjects are “teachable in lecture format but not exciting,” and are therefore taught better through hands-on experiences. He said the Wings of Eagles modeled its programs on those of top-rated high-tech school systems he visited in Seattle and San Diego.
Alison Mandel, director of education at the Wings of Eagles, has witnessed the effect her methods have had on children, some of them quite young. This summer, for example, third- and fourth-graders took part in a new two-week Marvelous Machines model building project and, Mandel said, “I was extremely impressed with how the kids got engaged in the program, how excited they got about the program.”
On December 6, students in grades five through eight from the Horseheads, Campbell-Savona, Addison, and Bath school districts took part in a SciFair Showcase at the museum. One of three such events that schools in the Greater Southern Tier BOCES districts put on each year, it gave students a chance to present the virtual worlds they had produced in groups on computers.
Jason Schrage, an eighth-grade social studies teacher and one of the coaches of the Horseheads group, said the number of applicants for the SciFair jumped significantly over previous projects because the word had gotten around that learning can be fun.
“There’s a lot of creativity involved” in the projects, Schrage said. “The kids go to town with it. They just go crazy.”
The excitement is shared by Hall, Mandel, and others at the Wings of Eagles as they consider the center’s future. But there’s concern, too, for what might be the most critical year in its history.
The museum had to move after Chemung County, which owned its former home, agreed in 2010 to lease that building to Sikorsky Aircraft, which was planning an expansion. Sikorsky has since announced that it will close its local operation, but the Wings of Eagles is long gone, having taken two years—a year longer than expected—to relocate.
Hall said the museum received $3.2 million to move but still needs about $3 million more to complete the transformation of what was the Thundering Hooves arena.
“For us, 2013 is a really important year because we have to rebuild our business,” he said. “We had to live off our reserves for a year longer, and now we have less reserves to protect us against a slow time. It’s important for us to connect with the public and have the public support us. If we can accomplish that, then we’ll be successful.”
-Roger Neumann is a retired editor and reporter for the Elmira Star-Gazette.