Students Soar into STEM and the Aviation Field

“When a student steps off the plane on their last day of the course, you’ve never seen a smile so big,” says Amy Buehler, Interim President of Wings of Hope. The course she’s speaking of is a four-week training program of Wings of Hope, called SOAR into STEM, which introduces area high school students to flight and aviation career paths. Their last session is in the air behind the controls of a Cessna, alongside a flight instructor, of course, she says. “It’s really quite an experience for them, some of whom have never even been on an airplane before.”

Buehler says the program, which launched in 2019, is targeted to girls and students of color – two groups long underrepresented in the industry – and intended to spark interest in both the industry as well as STEM learning. “There are tens of thousands of aircraft in the skies at any one time, and before COVID, air travel was projected to double over the next 20 years. Yet, fewer people are considering aviation as a career, and there’s already a significant mechanic shortage,” she says.

Throughout the course, students work with experts in various aspects of aviation to get plenty of hands-on learning experiences, such as constructing their own glider, using flight simulators, installing an electrical system and performing service tasks. They also meet inspirational speakers with stories from the field and are paired with experienced mentors who guide them through self-discovery and career exploration.

The backbone of the series, says Buehler, is on humanitarian aviation, something Wings of Hope knows a bit about. Celebrating its 60th anniversary and based out of Spirit of St. Louis Airport in Chesterfield, Wings of Hope provides medical air transport services, free of charge, to individuals across the Midwest who need specialized medical care that is not available to them locally. An all-volunteer base of pilots, mechanics, medical professionals and patient advocates put in nearly 86,000 miles of flight time for patients in 2022. Wings of Hope also partners with other organizations on the ground to support medical and humanitarian missions around the world.

“Our vision is of a world in which all people have access to the resources they need to create a better life,” says Buehler. “We believe this applies to students who may want to forge a path towards a career in aviation, and so we work to ensure that all students have access to the SOAR into STEM program, particularly those in under-resourced schools.” The organization was excited to receive a significant grant from the Wayne C. Kaufmann Charitable Foundation, a YouthBridge client, just recently.

“We’re so grateful to YouthBridge for making the connection to the Foundation, coming out to do site visits and providing guidance throughout the grant process. We would never have had this opportunity without them and hope to continue to build on our partnership.”

Buehler says she would love to see the SOAR into STEM program offered elsewhere across the country and the organization already has a virtual version it created during the pandemic. “When we look 20 years out, there are an estimated 2.4 million new aviation positions that are going to be needed to fly and maintain the world’s fleet of planes, so exposing more students to the field is key. Even if they don’t choose an aviation path, this program just makes STEM fun!”