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iFLY: An Exhilarating Way to Teach STEM Education

Mike Maravilla,

When you think of STEM education, it’s not likely that skydiving would be the first thing to pop into your mind. In all likelihood, it might be more likely to think about your students’ groans and eye-rolling more than outright enthusiasm, but iFLY is certainly trying to change all that.

iFLY is an indoor skydiving experience—making the otherwise daredevil act friendly (and altogether possible) for all ages. It’s been getting a lot of attention of late, so much so that two locations—one in Rosemont, IL, and the other in Naperville, IL—have opened their doors to eager flyers this summer. Needless to say, the prospect of simulated flight was scintillating enough for us to get curious, but the ability to tie in this adrenaline-charged adventure with classroom activities is what really sealed the deal for us.

Once we arrived, we were greeted by friendly staff and a face full of touchscreen TVs we’d use to check in. They’re essentially super-sized iPads, so your students will likely whiz right through this without issue. After this, we made our way up the stairs to the flight deck, a steady hum beckoning as we climbed each step. As we hit level ground once again, the flight chamber came into view—an instructor in a bright red jumpsuit pirouetting inside this transparent tube, contrasting vividly against the futuristic, blue hue of the room itself.

It was right then that my jitters gave way to pure excitement, eager to strap on a jumpsuit of my own and get flying. Soon after, we made our way into a brief classroom session to learn the basics and get accustomed to the hand signals we’d receive during flight to make adjustments. Happily, there were only four to memorize—bend legs, straighten legs, relax, and chin-up. I rehearsed the gestures in my mind as I suited up and strapped on some aero-friendly goggles.

The flight experience itself was nothing short of exhilarating. The rush of wind, the incremental adjustments to find balance, and the unfamiliar sensation of zero gravity was an experience I’d never forget. Although it felt short, I was told that the minute we have in the flight chamber is actually 15-seconds longer than the free-fall we’d experience if we jumped out of a plane. After two 60-second stints, we were treated to an instructor’s awe-inspiring, aerial display that made you want to fork over another $70 to go at it again.

It was then that I realized why iFLY encouraged us to try it out before we sat down to chat—we become our own science experiments. We literally use our bodies mid-flight to apply the concepts we may have just learned in the classroom hours before. It’s brilliant.

Amongst the plethora of strategies to get kids interested in Science, iFLY excels in actually bringing the traditionally humdrum subject to life—and an exciting one at that. And that’s only the half of it.

In addition to the skydiving simulation, students are able to conduct several experiments within the chamber based upon their grade level. We had an opportunity to speak with Michelle Mankiewicz, iFLY’s STEM Educator and Event Coordinator, to get a brief insight on what’s available:

Elementary Program —…we make different parachutes to understand how they fly, and why they fly the way they do. And the kids face the challenge of having to make one change to the parachutes, to hopefully make them fly better. We test them out, and then talk about the effects of parachute parameters on flight performance.

Middle School Program —… We take a bunch of different objects, and we fly them in the tunnel. Their goal is to take the mass of these objects, and calculate the ratio to their wind speed. They must figure out what might fly better, figure out why something flew worse than they projected, and just different ideas like that with a demonstration in the tunnel.

High School Program —What they get to do is calculate their terminal velocity (using actual measured wind tunnel speeds)—so the background needed for our high school program would be physical science, basic physics, and algebra. Once the kids come in, I’m happy to teach them everything that they need to know about the wind tunnel, and how to derive the equation they’re going to need in order to calculate their terminal velocity. Once they have what they have in the classroom, here we give them everything else they need to be successful.” 

After chatting with Michelle, we snapped a few photos and talked with some parents who had brought their kids in to fly. It was remarkable to see children of all ages completely enthralled with the experience—one of which was physically disabled. Indeed, iFLY has flown with kids who were autistic, blind, deaf, or confined to wheelchairs before—there isn’t a person that iFLY intends to exclude. It brought a smile to my face to hear that they had also flown a 103-year-old not too long ago as well.

But back to education, it’s amazing to think that students and teachers alike are able to not only experience flight using the very same equipment that pro skydivers and military personnel use to train, but also that a company like this is working so diligently to make real-world connections with the classroom space. It seemed like when I was in school, the closest thing we got to that was watching a movie that would even put the teacher to sleep. It’s initiatives like this that can help peak curiosity within young minds, have fun, and propel us up the technological career race (no pun intended).

If you’re looking for that special spark to ignite your classroom’s interest in STEM education this year, this is easily the hottest ticket in town. Not only will you be on the cutting edge of education, but the coolest teacher to walk the hallways.

Huge thanks to the iFLY team for having us out—it was a blast and we’ll be sure to come back soon!

For more information on iFLY’s education program, please visit their website or contact them via web form here.


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