Peninsula High School Students Learn About Air Traffic Control Careers
A group of ninth-grade students from San Mateo High School, Calif., were given a unique opportunity March 21, 2012, to transfer problem-solving skills from the classroom to the real world. NASA and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) hosted a field trip packed with authentic air traffic control experiences for the students at the FAA’s Oakland Air Route Traffic Control Center in Fremont, Calif.
The two-hour field trip was part of NASA and the FAA’s partnership in promoting science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education and related careers using a NASA education project called “Smart Skies.” The project uses the theme of air traffic control to connect mathematics, problem solving, and decision-making skills to the real world.
“When air traffic controllers guide planes from departure to arrival, it’s all math and science behind the scenes,” said Tom Davis, chief of the Aviation System Division at NASA’s Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif. “Math is the foundation to many things you will want to do in life,” Davis told the students assembled in the Air Traffic Control (ATC) conference room.
Seated in the executive chairs used by air traffic controllers when briefed each morning, the 15 students also were briefed on the field trip’s agenda, which included a tour of the control room floor, a training exercise in the Dynamic Simulation (DySim) laboratory, and an opportunity to test their skills on iPads via a NASA air traffic control mobile game called “Sector 33.”
In preparation for the field trip, the students used NASA’s Smart Skies “LineUp With Math” web-based simulator in the classroom to learn the proportional reasoning skills used to solve real-life distance-rate-time problems in air traffic control. The Sector 33 game is based on Smart Skies LineUp With Math, and is a mobile application currently available for the iPad, iPhone, and iPod touch. Both products were developed under the direction of NASA's Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate and distributed in cooperation with the Federal Aviation Administration and National Air Traffic Controllers Association. The math-focused games align with the NASA Office of Education's mission to engage students in activities related to science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
“After students learned how to use Smart Skies and were given time to practice it, they started showing initiative. They started moving on to more advanced mathematical problem-solving by themselves,” said Marco Rainaldi, the students’ mathematics teacher who has been teaching the subject for the past seven years.
In the DySim lab, students received instruction from air traffic controllers about how to use computer training modules that are used by their own personnel. “This is the ultimate video game,” one teacher told a student. “But you have to be right every time.”
Students moved from one activity to another, sharing their reactions with each other about the games they played, the people they met, and the technology they saw, practiced and used in the DySim lab. When the field trip ended, Melissa Holmes, staff manager of the Oakland Air Route Traffic Control Center, extended a fond farewell, and students filed out the door still talking about all that they had seen and done.
“With the Smart Skies education project and real-world events such as this one today, NASA and the FAA are taking math from the chalkboard and making it real to these students,” said Davis.
NASA’s mobile game application may be downloaded free of charge at:
For more information about NASA Ames, visit:
Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif.