STEM AVSED: Challenging the Past and Building a Better Future
Vol.8 Issue 2
Willa Brown holds the distinction of being the first African American woman to earn a pilot license and the first African American to qualify for a commercial pilot license. (Photo Credit: Public Domain)

STEM AVSED (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math Aviation and Space Education) has a rich history of diversity found in the scientists, pioneers, explorers, thinkers, and dare-devils who looked beyond what was known and saw what could be. During the month of February, which is Black History Month, we acknowledge the impact that African Americans have had in the world of aviation and aerospace, simultaneously challenging society, and science. We also examine the continuing STEM AVSED support that the FAA and the Mike Monroney Aeronautical Center (MMAC) provides to minority and African American students.

From the early days of aviation, African Americans have played a pivotal role in forging the new frontier of flight. Cornelius Coffey became the first African American to hold a pilot and aircraft mechanic license in the U.S. He and his wife, Willa Brown established the Coffey School of Aeronautics, a flight school for anyone who wanted to learn to fly. Willa, a success in her own right, was the first African American woman to earn a pilot license and a commercial pilot license in the U.S. Together, they worked tirelessly advocating equal access to aviation training opening the doors for many African Americans to obtain their wings.

The Coffey School of Aeronautics helped train the famed Tuskegee Airmen. Prior to World War II, Black pilots were banned from serving as pilots in the U.S. military, but the war and the Tuskegee Airmen changed history as they served with great distinction and honor. Many of the Tuskegee Airmen had long and exemplary careers, to include famed United States Air Force Four-star General Benjamin O. Davis and Brigadier General Charles E. McGee, both of whom recently passed away in January. These bold aviators were instrumental in removing racial barriers, opening wide the gates for minorities into the world of aviation and space.

Eight of the famed Tuskegee Airmen pose by one their "Red Tail" aircraft. The Tuskegee Airmen heroically served in World War II, defeating the Axis powers and opening a new era in military aviation for African Americans. (Photo Credit: Public Domain)

The mark made by African Americans in aviation has not been confined to earth’s atmosphere. In 1983, Astronaut Guion "Guy" Bluford became the first African American in space. Nine years later in 1992, Dr. Mae C. Jemison became the first African American woman to travel to space as part of a mission which performed numerous experiments and medical studies.

National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) astronaut Guion "Guy" Bluford, pictured onboard the space shuttle Challenger, was the first African American to travel to space. (Photo Credit: NASA, Public Domain)
NASA astronaut Dr. Mae C. Jemison aboard the Spacelab within the space shuttle Endeavour. Dr. Jemison was part of space mission STS-47 and conducted scientific experiments to include research on possible treatments for motion sickness and anxiety and stress-related disorders. (Photo Credit: NASA, Public Domain)

These brave aviators and astronauts and many others challenged and changed what society believed. They all contributed to the deconstruction of the racism of the past while helping build a better future for all. They believed that aviation and aerospace were realms of science that should be accessible to everyone. The Mike Monroney Aeronautical Center is committed to continuing their legacy of making STEM AVSED accessible to everyone.

The FAA and the Mike Monroney Aeronautical Center support the full-spectrum development of minority students in STEM AVSED education. Local STEM AVSED events are selected with consideration given toward diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility of minority students in elementary, middle, and high school. The Aeronautical Center’s STEM AVSED Program events include activities such as the annual MMAC ACE Camp, StellarXplorers, and Adopt-A-School. These outreach activities build opportunities for African American and other minority students to experience the wonder of the world of aviation and aerospace. Additionally, the MMAC STEM AVSED Program partners with groups such as the Organization of Black Aerospace Professionals (OBAP), Choctaw Nation, the Technical Women’s Organization (TWO), and numerous employee associations to reach an even greater diversity of students.

After high school, the FAA continues to invest in the lives and future careers of minority students. Langston University, a Historically Black College and University (HBCU) located in Langston, Oklahoma has been officially adopted by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which provides support to Langston’s Department of Technology, resulting in the establishment of a Bachelor of Science degree program in Airway Science, a cooperative effort with Oklahoma State University. Additionally, the Langston University Summer Transportation Institute, a summer program for high school and junior high students was developed to learn about the transportation industry and is funded in part by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

Langston University, located in Langston, Oklahoma, is one of the many distinguished Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU’s) in the U.S. (Photo Credit: Langston University)

Beyond school and college, the Aeronautical Center provides additional opportunities for all students to transition into the aviation workforce through programs such as CAPSTONE. The CAPSTONE Program is an internship program that invites college students to work alongside the MMAC workforce and help address real-world challenges and problems while gaining valuable experience and insight into Federal employment. To further facilitate minorities, the FAA hosts the Minority Serving Institutions (MSI) Inter Program which provides eligible students from underrepresented minority groups opportunities to capitalize on their academic studies and gain meaningful work experience and developmental activities. These internship experiences can lead to employment opportunities within the Federal Aviation Administration.

The Aeronautical Center is proud to support these STEM AVSED and minority education and internship initiatives. It is important to recognize the heritage of those who have broken down racial barriers and opened the doors for a better future for all. By embracing diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility, within educational and hiring opportunities the FAA continues to build a high-performing workforce that recognizes the unique and diverse talents of its employees.

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