Anne Arundel teacher learns to fly to help students soar

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South River High School teacher Rob Rice could have taught his aeronautics class without ever leaving the ground. Instead, he's bolstering his teaching skills by soaring over the Bay Bridge in a two-seat propeller plane, learning to become a pilot.

Taking off and landing can be harrowing at times, but Rice says the experience he's bringing to the classroom is worth it, making his students eager to take flight themselves.

"Hopefully they can get as excited as I am about it," said Rice, "and maybe a little bit jealous, because they're doing all the bookwork and I'm doing all the flying. I try to relate my most recent lessons to what I'm teaching in class."

Rice, 24, has taken more than a dozen classes at Chesapeake Sport Pilot flight school in Stevensville en route to earning his pilot's license and learning to become an FAA ground instructor. A Maryland education official said Rice is the only one the state is aware of doing this type of professional development.

Rice's yearlong aeronautics course at South River prepares students for their FAA ground school exam and readies them for flight lessons, he said. About 18 students are in the class this year.

Rice keeps them informed of his experiences with a blog that also provides information to bolster their classroom study. Rice said he draws from his flight school experiences to teach lessons about airplane performance, engines and maneuvers.

"I'm currently teaching them about radio communication, and I have to do that every single time I go into the air," said Rice. "It's easier now to teach them concepts about flying a plane."

Rice's students are avid readers of his blog.

"He's a role model for future pilots," said South River 10th-grader Nick Platek, one of Rice's students who delights in hearing about the course his teacher is taking. "He's someone you can look up to and say, 'Hey I want to be like him, flying with all the knowledge.'"

The course is part of Anne Arundel County public schools' efforts to offer teachers professional development opportunities beyond traditional settings.

"This professional development experience is so rich that you can't compare it to two hours in the classroom," said Maureen McMahon, the school system's assistant superintendent for advanced studies and programs.

South River and North County High School house Anne Arundel's STEM Magnet programs, which Rice's class is part of. They offer project-based, hands-on learning environments in science, technology, engineering and math classes. STEM courses and programs expose students to science and technology-based careers, an area of emphasis throughout the state and nation.

McMahon said Rice's flight school lessons were funded as part of a $1.5 million NASA Earth and Space grant. She said the school system shares the three-year grant with theUniversity of Maryland, Baltimore County and Wheeling Jesuit University in West Virginia.

Katharine Oliver, state assistant superintendent for career and college readiness, says the South River STEM Magnet's collaboration with a flight school is the only one she knows of in the state.

"We are very anxious to see how we can link our high school programs, particularly in that pre-engineering area, because it's a nice fit," she said. "Our pre-engineering programs have an opportunity for an aeronautical specialty."

Rice said he still is nervous when he flies, but "it's getting easier."

"The first time we went up, because of the class I'm teaching, I knew a lot of the basics," he said. "When it was time to actually fly, the flight instructor was giving me a little bit of leeway, saying, 'Go ahead, you can taxi out.'

"And the minute we took off, you felt lighter. It was just exciting, here we were above the Bay Bridge, and I couldn't believe it," Rice added.

McMahon said school officials sought to take advantage of the many small airports nearby in crafting South River's aerospace engineering program. "The whole notion is that STEM has to come to life for these students or it just becomes something that remains academic," she said. "We want to tell these kids that are so many opportunities out there."

Rice's Chesapeake Sport Pilot course consists of a ground school component that, like his STEM class, involves textbook instruction. Then there are a series of lessons that build toward flying a plane solo. The instruction's final exam is administered by an FAA-designated examiner.

"This part of aviation is not about producing airline pilots," said Chesapeake Sport Pilot chief flight instructor Helen Woods. "This side of aviation is all about recreation and enjoyment."

On a recent afternoon, Rice took off in a Sky Arrow 600 Sport two-seater propeller plane with Woods, soaring in a rectangular pattern a little more than 1,000 feet over the airport and Chesapeake Bay. As traffic steadily gridlocked on the Bay Bridge, Rice practically had the skies to himself, save a few migrant birds gliding in their own flight patterns adjacent to the runway.

Lately, Rice has been working on smoother landings so he can ultimately fly solo. During his recent class, he touched down nearly half a dozen times while on several occasions conducting a go-around, or aborting a landing.

His first-ever landing, he said, was "traumatizing realizing that we have to get this back on the ground. The nose is pointing and everything. There are so many things going on. You're checking your airspeed, your altitude. Are the flaps down? Are we parallel with the runway? It can get very frustrating."

Yet Woods says that Rice is an excellent learner, adding that among the keys to successfully landing an aircraft is knowing when to conduct a go-around.

"He does his homework and studies," Woods said of Rice. "He has a lot of aptitude as well as a lot of interest, enthusiasm and motivation."

Since spending time in the cockpit, Rice said he now insists on booking seats on commercial flights near the wings "so I can watch the flaps go down. When my students tell me that they're going on a commercial flight I tell them, 'Make sure you sit by the wings so you can get a snapshot and tell me what the captain is telling you.' They get excited about being on a commercial flight now more than they were before."

South River 10th-grader John Garrison said that he's taking the STEM aeronautics class with hopes of someday gaining his pilot's license and joining the Air Force. He said that Rice's experiences have become an invaluable part of the class.

"When he told us, it sounded very exciting that our own teacher was going to be a pilot," said Garrison. "He's a role model for future pilots."

joseph.burris@baltsun.com

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