Chicago school’s aerospace program takes learning to new heights

Chicago’s Fenger Academy has become the first high school in the nation to house a NASA-backed program called the Science, Engineering, Mathematics, and Aerospace Academy (SEMAA).

The academy, which is intended to expose disadvantaged students to cutting-edge technologies, features a high-tech aeronautics education laboratory complete with nine computerized workstations, where students can learn about satellite global positioning, remote sensing, amateur radio, and aircraft design.

Seven other SEMAA programs exist across the country, reaching thousands of children and their families in cities such as St. Louis, Detroit, Baltimore, and Atlanta. But those programs are all located on the campuses of community colleges or museums. Students at Fenger Academy will be the first to experience the program on their own turf.

“Our partnership with NASA will better prepare our students to meet academic standards and promote the careers of the future,” said Paul Vallas, chief executive officer of the Chicago Public Schools. “SEMAA is a win-win situation not only for Fenger students, but for the seven feeder schools who will use the facility on the weekends.”

The program’s goal is to motivate greater numbers of students to pursue careers in science, math, and related fields, through learning experiences that will increase their participation and foster their success in college preparatory courses and post-secondary education.

Fenger Academy students will visit the lab as part of their regular schedule, while students from Fenger’s feeder schools will have access to the facility on Saturdays.

Fenger Principal Janice Ollarvia said the program will be used as a curriculum enhancement. This summer, Fenger teachers will undergo training on how to implement the program for all 800 high school students.

Chicago Public Schools spent more than $66,000 to prepare Fenger Academy for the program, demolishing a shuttered woodshop and transforming the site into a state-of-the-art facility.

Now, the woodshop site is home to high-tech workstations, virtual reality equipment, and a specially designed wind tunnel.

As part of a long-term project, students will plan inter-city flights to various NASA locations across the country.

The students will have to design an aircraft that can withstand a wind-tunnel test, research weather patterns, figure out fueling needs and costs, and use the internet to make reservations at their destination.

The project culminates in a virtual flight using a flight simulator and an elaborate headset to guide the plane to its destination.

At the SEMAA dedication ceremony in June, Vallas was joined by U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., D-Ill., NASA officials, SEMAA partners, and astronaut Joan Higginbotham, who attended Whitney Young Magnet High School in Chicago.

Jackson, who has a keen interest in exposing traditionally underserved students to high-tech fields, was a key player in securing a grant from NASA to bring SEMAA to the Chicago school.

NASA’s Office of Equal Opportunities Programs provided a $525,000 two-year grant to establish the new academy.

“This program not only piques students’ interest in the fascinating world of science and technology, but it does so in an intriguing, entertaining, and thought-provoking fashion. I’d like this in every school system in America,” Jackson said.

A vision of former Ohio Congressman Louis Stokes, SEMAA got its start in 1993 with the help of NASA astronaut and former U.S. Sen. John Glenn. The first academy was established at Cuyahoga Community College in Cleveland.

Chicago Public Schools

NASA Office of Equal Opportunities Programs

Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr.

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