The women of iFLY take STEM education to new heights.
By Stacey Ingram Kaleh, Photos courtesy of iFly Indoor Skydiving
iFLY is taking STEM education to new heights…literally. When it comes to the indoor skydiving adventure, there’s more than meets the eye. A team of women leaders at iFLY is passionate about making flight experiences educational and accessible, and they’re inspiring many young people to get interested in science, technology, engineering and mathematics in the process.
Through experiential learning—hands-on interactive learning experiences—iFLY’s educational field trips help K-12 students get excited about STEM fields and better understand how they can apply STEM insights in the real world. These field trips follow expert-designed curricula that align with state-specific education standards, serving as a resource for students and educators nationwide. Each trip is led by a highly trained iFLY educator, many of whom come from teaching and engineering backgrounds, and features grade-appropriate lab activities, experiments, physics demonstrations that come to life in a state-of-the-art vertical wind tunnel and one-on-one flights with a certified iFLY bodyflight instructor. These experiences provide students with a memorable experience that has the potential to spark curiosity and interest in STEM fields.
Bridging the Gap for Women in STEM
As women working in STEM, Michelle Brumley, Kelcie Carlson and Karissa Swift are especially motivated to share their love for what they do with young women and girls, and with great reason. According to U.S. Census Bureau data from 2019, women make up 48% of the U.S. workforce but only 27% of STEM workers. Furthermore, reports from the American Association of University Women show that women are significantly underrepresented in STEM majors at colleges and universities due to systemic inequities that impact them from a young age. This suggests that women are being left out when it comes to some of the fastest-growing and highest-paying job opportunities in fields such as computer science, engineering, medical science and robotics.
“If 50% of the workforce is excluded, we’re losing 50% of all the good ideas,” says Brumley, iFLY’s associate product manager and an expert in aerospace physiology. She began her career as a commissioned officer in the United States Air Force (USAF), where she taught aircrew about the effects of flying on the human body—from hypoxia to spatial disorientation and G-forces. She flew many different types of airplanes, including a U2 high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft, which she flew above 70,000 feet at Beale Air Force Base. During an assignment at the USAF School of Aerospace Medicine at Brooks AFB in San Antonio, Brumley oversaw curriculum development and standardization for the entire aerospace physiology career field and trained new aerospace physiologists across the U.S., Sweden, Germany, Israel and Canada.
Add the fact that she’s a mom and has also worked as a secondary school science teacher and needless to say, she brings incredible experience and perspective to the iFLY team. In fact, Brumley has been responsible for STEM curriculum development for more than 30 iFLY locations and has trained more than 50 STEM instructors for the company.
Brumley speaks to the need to expand the generally held perceptions associated with STEM jobs and encourage young people to think about STEM careers as creative professions where people driven by curiosity can make a meaningful mark on the world. “For young women to know their input is valuable and to see themselves in these roles is important. To engage women to think about these roles differently is important,” she says. “For example, when we talk about engineers, we talk about creativity, how engineers are creative people. Being an engineer is not a boring job that means sitting behind the desk. It’s your job to come up with new ideas. Your job is never done, and how exciting is that! As soon as you get to the end, you start all over again and ask, ‘How can I make this even better?’
“We like to talk about how scientists ask a lot of questions, so if you’re curious, that’s such a great opportunity to look at all of those types of careers,” she encourages.
Soaring Into STEM: The Field Trip Experience
Beyond helping to address a gender gap in STEM fields, iFLY staff inspire learners of all ages to think about these disciplines in new, relatable ways. Their field trips are designed to help visitors see how fun STEM can be and also how connected it is to innumerable aspects of our daily lives.
Carlson, a STEM education coordinator who works to coordinate initiatives throughout the U.S., holds an education degree from Arizona State University with an emphasis on math and technology. She has taught in a wide range of school settings, from public to Montessori to virtual. After taking her son and husband to iFLY in Cincinnati, she was inspired to become an educator for the company. A typical middle school field trip begins with a physics demonstration, where participants watch 10 different objects fly in the wind tunnel, a wall-to-wall air column that moves air at speeds high enough to keep a person safely floating. Then students and field trip participants fly for about 60 seconds in the wind tunnel. Finally, students conduct lab activities to reinforce what they learned. They work together throughout the pre- and post-fly labs to make and test predictions.
“I think we’re kind of born with that love and innate curiosity for STEM, but as you get older and study for AP tests and things like that, some of it becomes not as much fun,” Carlson says. “But when students are at the wind tunnel, that love really comes back, and you can see that excitement in their eyes.” From Carlson’s perspective, that excitement and curiosity around STEM-related jobs has some of the most meaningful impact of each field trip. She, like Brumley, sees significance in getting students to think just a little bit differently. “These are jobs that involve a wide range of skills—creativity, critical thinking and problem-solving—and they grow at a faster rate and see lower rates of unemployment. When you have these periods of stagnation or recession, the people in STEM are much more likely to keep their jobs and remain stable in their careers.”
Brumley details the lab activities, which range from building and testing parachutes for elementary students to activities that ask high school students to calculate their own terminal velocity—the wind speed that it takes to make them fly—and then compare it to their actual experience. This, in turn, helps to build an understanding of what scientists and engineers really do, lifting the curtain to go beyond the entertainment aspect most prominently presented at iFLY. “We’re able to talk a lot about how, even when we understand the math of something, it doesn’t always correlate directly when you have a complicated object like the human body. Having a wind tunnel, we can use that to get good, accurate information about objects. So, we then tie that in to how scientists and engineers are using wind tunnels in the real world,” Brumley explains.
Swift, iFLY’s senior area sales manager, helps connect public and private schools, youth organizations and Girl and Boy Scout troops to unique field trip experiences. She loves that “they get a little piece of everything. We’re teaching about the science and physics behind bodyflight, but then they actually get to experience it and become part of the science experiment themselves. It’s the coolest thing to see their faces light up, and they leave with smiles from ear-to-ear.”
Swift enjoys working with educators to be a partner in planning for their academic year. She wants to ensure that a trip to iFLY becomes a highlight of the academic year for her clients. “If we can capture their attention, show them how cool STEM is, and just get their wheels spinning to understand the different career paths available to them, then that’s really impactful,” says Swift. “For instance, kids these days love video games. A video game designer is a STEM job. STEM doesn’t just mean being a science teacher or a math teacher. There are hundreds and hundreds of jobs out there. That’s something that my clients love, that we can highlight those opportunities while the students are in this setting.”
Working to Encourage and Inspire
Though Brumley, Carlson and Swift have dynamic and distinct personal stories about what led them to join the iFLY team, they seem unified in their authentic passion for teaching, learning and challenging the status quo in support of the students they serve. They represent different touch points for iFLY’s customers yet exemplify how their different areas and skill sets work together to provide the highest quality educational experience for their customers from pre- to post-visit. They’re in the business of empowering students with a fun and outside-the-box teaching approach, and they take their jobs seriously.
Sometimes stepping outside of the traditional classroom has a way of opening our eyes, allowing us to see things in a new way. Just think of a visit to an art museum, how emotional it can be to see a painting you’ve only ever seen in a textbook up close. You can almost feel the weight and texture of the paint, see the artist’s hand in each stroke. At iFLY, field trippers see science in action, and they become part of a full-body practice in physics, floating in a wind tunnel thanks to feats of engineering. They are exposed to educators and professional skydivers who work and train at iFLY, exemplifying viable STEM careers. The experience makes abstract concepts and career paths real; this is not lost on iFLY’s team. In fact, it’s what motivates them.
“I was more of a hands-on learner,” Swift remarks. “Interaction is huge for me. Being in a classroom setting, you don’t always have the ability to be impacted in that way, to fuel that spark and interest. With something as simple as a really awesome field trip experience, and getting those wheels spinning for future thinking, there can be so much power in that.”
“Naturally, we want students to learn the standards and the educational material that we teach. But I think even more life-altering is insight into their own skills and passions that they have,” Carlson says. “STEM careers are one of my favorite things to talk about because sometimes people don’t feel they’re interests and skills are related to STEM. I’ve talked to a student who was interested in fashion design, and we connected the dots to the science, math and engineering that’s involved in that. I talked to someone who loved to bake, so we talked about all of the math and chemistry involved in baking and cooking. No matter what we do, I love helping convey that there are aspects of STEM in everything. No matter what your skills and talents are, you work with STEM every day of your life.”
Growing Impact in Austin and Beyond
While STEM field trips are currently offered at 33 iFLY locations nationwide, iFLY Austin has a unique opportunity to influence young women growing up in a community that’s quickly becoming a global hub for businesses in tech. “Austin is the Silicon Hills. The young women in Austin have this amazing opportunity to really go into this tech world without ever having to leave home,” says Brumley. Since 2018, iFLY Austin has hosted more than 400 STEM field trips for students in the region.
With a vision toward making their programs accessible, iFLY offers different pricing structures for Title I school groups at all locations. It’s an initiative that means a lot to Brumley. “I literally get chill bumps thinking about this because we’ve been talking about providing this memorable experience of a lifetime, and to see these kids get to come in and do something they probably have never done before is amazing.”
How does this all come together? iFLY has approximately 100 dedicated educators nationwide who drive the STEM program. The team is growing and the curriculum is evolving each year. “Our goal now is to double, if not triple, our STEM program,” she says, exuding excitement for the continued growth of iFLY’s programs and their positive impact.
Brumley wants young women and girls who participate in iFLY programs to be inspired and encouraged. “I hope they walk away with the notion of, ‘I can do anything,’” she says. “That they can visualize themselves in these different jobs, that they feel they can do it and that it’s fun.”
She adds that many STEM jobs that will be available to the students they see come through iFLY may not have been created yet. “I like to tell people that you could end up in a really amazing job that you’ve never even heard of.”
Brumley speaks from personal experience. Before she joined the Air Force, she had never heard of aerospace physiology. Now she works for iFLY, a company that didn’t exist when she began her career. “What do you really love, and where does that fit in? The answer may surprise you, and the future may hold even more opportunities.”