Aeronautics program takes flight at Aspen School District |

Aeronautics program takes flight at Aspen School District

Scott Schlafer
Special to The Aspen Times
Dana Pingatore/Special to The Aspen Times

Greg Roark has had a zeal for flying since he was a kid. As the director of the newly created aeronautics program in the Aspen School District, he hopes his lifelong fervor rubs off on students at a time when America is in the midst of a technological evolution.

The school district — recognizing that a critical problem within the American education system is most students’ lack of motivation and desire to pursue a career in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM — is introducing the AERO AV8R program spanning from kindergarten to 12th grade.

Led by Roark, 52, the program is designed to provide an experiential-learning environment focused on aeronautics and to encourage and excite students to pursue a career in the sciences.

Those wanting to learn more about the program can visit the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport today, Friday or Saturday as part of the Aspen AERO Expo. The fundraising event is designed to raise awareness about the program and demonstrate how aeronautics will be integrated into the Aspen School District. More details can be found at


Raised in the Ozarks of southwest Missouri, Roark’s passion for flying began at age 6 after his first flight. He has since helped develop and launch the Southwest Aeronautics, Mathematics and Science Academy, also known as SAMS, in Albuquerque, N.M. The charter school opened in September and is designed to integrate STEM and aeronautics into the core curriculum.

Roark is now in the process of incorporating similar concepts from SAMS into the Aspen School District curriculum. However, he is making a significant addition to a STEM education by adding an “A” for arts, making it STEAM. In order to include an artistic component, the program provides students with the opportunity to build and design aircraft.

Nicky Byrne, 22, is an Aspen resident and recently graduated from the University of North Dakota with a bachelor’s degree in aerospace sciences. Byrne said he believes art is an essential element to aeronautics.

“Adding the ‘A’ is important because a lot of times the individuals who excel in these fields tend to have a very left-brain, linear form of thinking. Incorporating the art factor will help develop a more creative side, which is necessary to be successful in this industry,” Byrne said.

Having to wait until college to begin his aerospace education, Byrne said he would have loved if this program existed when he went through the Aspen school system.

“The Aspen AERO AV8R program is designed to show relevance,” Roark said. “We have to come up with a new generation of kids who know how to build products and services that the rest of the world needs. How else are we going to do it if not for igniting little fires like this program?”


One way to spark a student’s interest is the Redbird FMX Full-Motion Flight Simulator. Redbird is certified by the Federal Aviation Administration and qualifies as a supplement to a pilot’s required flight training. (The simulator feels so much like flying that Roark said he must keep paper bags inside in case students get nauseated on the flight.) This advanced aviation-training device is the backbone of the AERO AV8R program in that it allows aeronautics to serve as a model in almost every school subject.

“Having Redbird as a resource, teachers would have an opportunity, because of its capability, to basically show any city in the world that has an airport. It would be a great opportunity for kids to use it for geography courses, world history, art and architecture,” said John Maloy, superintendent of the Aspen School District. “In the near future, I see content-area teachers, who are used to working strictly within their own content, reaching across the aisle doing some cross-pollination with other teachers in different content areas, talking about how they can create relevancy between and among departments through the topic of aviation.”

Although aeronautics might seem too advanced for elementary school students, Roark has developed a method of adapting the lessons and information to kids of all ages.

Chase Kelly, 7, is entering the second grade at Aspen Elementary School and participated in the AV8R program this past school year.

“It was really fun building model airplanes and flying helicopters through obstacle courses that I made,” Kelly said.

Kelly also said he most likely wants to be a pilot, like his father, when he grows up because of how much he enjoys the program.

For students at Aspen High School, there will be an elective course that students must apply for. Roark has his pilot instructor’s license and will be teaching students how to fly in both the simulator and actual airplanes. By the end of the course, the students will have earned their private pilot’s license. The class gained immediate popularity; this past semester, there were only 11 students, and now there are more than 50 student applicants for next year’s course. Graduating high school students will have the opportunity to buffer their resumes by having something as unique as a pilot’s license, according to Maloy.

The Aspen AERO AV8R program would not have been possible without the help of Lawrence Altman. As the president of the Aspen Aerospace Alliance, Altman, 48, is an avid philanthropist and said he believes contributing to enhance the Aspen School District is more than a worthy cause. Most notably, Altman purchased the Redbird simulator for $108,000 as a donation to the aviation program.

“Imagine if you were taking physics under the context of learning how to fly. Wouldn’t it just be that much more interesting and engaging for the students?” Altman said. “Flying is secondary, a way to get kids excited to learn science. That is what matters.”

Scott Schlafer is an intern working with The Aspen Times through July.