Opening day of Sun ‘n Fun brought big news: A $1.4 million grant from NASA to enhance the Central Florida Aerospace Academy, which is on the Sun ‘n Fun campus at Lakeland-Linder Regional Airport, as well as other programs throughout Polk County Public Schools.
The local school system was one of only nine in the nation to receive the NASA grant. Grants ranged in size from $300,000 to Polk’s $1.4 million grant.
“We’re in pretty rare air,” said John Small, the school system’s senior director of workforce education.
The idea of going for a $1.4 million NASA grant began with Gail Taylor at the Florida Air Museum. When it was passed on to school officials, the feeling was that it was too far-reaching for the local schools and the brand-new aerospace academy.
“When they first came to me I thought they were reaching too far outside the box,” said Dr. Gail McKinzie, superintendent.
But under Small’s leadership, it soon became reality. “John dreams a lot,” she said. “And when people dream, things happen.”
School officials also believe the “dream team” of Sun ‘n Fun, the University of South Florida, USF Polytechnic-Lakeland and local aviation industry businesses and leaders, such as Rick Garcia at Gulf Coast Avionics, was instrumental in receiving the grant.
Funds from the grant will provide for a full-time coordinator to monitor and run the aerospace program for two years. It also will fund curriculum development, as well as professional development for teachers. Those projects will be led by officials from the universities.
Other projects earmarked for the grant funds include sending 30 students to the USF Gifted Program this summer, where they will study robotics, while another 120 students will attend Sun ‘n Fun summer camps.
It also will fund robotics labs at six of the district’s middle schools.
“We want to create a feeder program for the academy,” Small said.
Grant funds also will be used to buy equipment for the aerospace academy, such as a 3-D printer, which the students will use to help them design aerospace parts.
“We also want to bring real-life experts from the aerospace industry to work with the teachers and students,” he said.
One of those experts will be Frank Klatt, a long-time Sun ‘n Fun volunteer and an engineer who worked on space shuttle programs while at Rockwell International.
He’s a real rocket scientist,” Small said.
Klatt will share his expertise with teachers and the curriculum development team, he said. “He knows his stuff,” he said. “We need to get his expertise to our students.”
As school district officials make plans for the NASA grant money, they also must make plans for a new building for the aerospace academy.
“Our problem is how are we going to house all these students?” Small said. “It’s important that we take hold of this program. I believe it could be a stellar program and one that will attract attention from people all over the country, but we need money to build a state-of-the-art facility.”
There’s no doubt that will happen, if the past is any indication.
“In true Florida fashion, the aerospace academy came together like a hurricane,” said John Burton, Sun ‘n Fun president. “It came together in such a short period of time and with an incredible amount of energy.”
For more information: Sun-n-Fun.org