Charting New Territory Using the Theory of Flight

Written by Jean Middleton. Pictures by Nicholas Mather and Ryan Lee

For over two decades, the Alberta Aviation Museum (AAM)’s most popular program has been Theory of Flight (TOF). It’s the museum’s longest running and only formal education program based on the Alberta Grade 6 curriculum. It was originally developed and continues to be largely facilitated by volunteers. The program has grown so much in popularity that most years it has been booked solid. Its success is evident by the number of visiting youth and young adults who remember and mention their TOF field trip. 

Despite the program’s continuing success, a major update was long overdue. While there were attempts to update TOF, including the addition of flight simulators two years ago, mixed reviews for the simulators made it clear that we couldn’t continue to make only minor updates to TOF. We needed to completely rethink our education program.

There were several factors that made the existing TOF program unsustainable, as it did not meet all teachers’ needs and was difficult to facilitate. The existing program was too densely packed with content that was specific to only a few units of one grade level. It was also too long, and lecture-based.Our goals for the redevelopment were to make the program:

  • Interactive;
  • Flexible to better meet the needs of individual classes;
  • More diverse in curriculum content; and 
  • Structured to expand for more grades.

TOF’S redevelopment was not in the plans for this year, as we focussed our efforts on working to create a new strategy to expand programming towards children and family audiences. This strategy is part of the Blueprint for Sustainability Business Plan 2019 – 2021, and its focus on child-led, inquiry-based learning influenced our changes to TOF when we were hit by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The AAM’s volunteer video production team. Larry Grosfield, Assistant Tech (Left) and Steve Finkelman, Director (Right).

A provincial state of emergency and four-month temporary closure had shifted our priorities. With our programming on hold, upon reopening, the most immediate need was to support teachers in the return to school in Fall 2020. This presented an unexpected opportunity to get started on a project to completely update TOF in a new virtual / remote alternative format. 

As field trips to the museum will not be an option this school year, creativity was needed in how we presented the material. Despite a condensed, four-month development timeline, we also did not want to create a temporary solution. We needed to ensure that the program fit with the long-term strategy that was being put in place museum-wide prior to the pandemic. 

As a result, we decided on a two-part program that includes an activity kit that will be sent to schools, followed by a scheduled digital Q&A session. The kits are divided into several activities with associated objects or archival material from our collection. These activities are designed to take place over the course of one or two weeks. The live session that follows includes pre-recorded video tours of some of the museum’s aircraft and a Q&A session with the museum’s volunteer instructors. This will allow students to interact virtually with an aviation expert and to see some historic aircraft up close.

The progress of our Children and Family Learning Strategy greatly influenced our approach to designing a new TOF program that can adapt to accommodate diverse learning needs in school classrooms, and it has helped to navigate the uncertainty of this school year.

Jean Middleton admires the AAM’s
“Yukon Queen,”  one of three 
remaining Barkley-Grow T8P-1s 
in the world.

Whether classes will be in-person, online, or a combination of both, the two-part program will allow for flexibility in any school district. If necessary, the kits can be easily adapted to create a completely digital experience, combining at-home activities and live digital sessions.

These activity kits will also prove useful in future years as an alternative for schools that are unable to visit the museum for a field trip. The activities from the kits, as well as the video content from the live sessions, will also serve as a starting point in the expanded creation of new field trips. 

From choosing kit materials based on sanitation protocols to reducing high-touch surface contact for object handling activities, developing a program right now has presented some new challenges. More typical hurdles, such as gathering audience feedback, have become more difficult than usual. Fortunately, we were able to get feedback via a survey sent to teachers who have visited in previous years.

Hurdles aside, changing the format of TOF from a field trip to a remote and virtual program has allowed us to revitalize and expand how we present programming. It has forced us to move away from doing repetitive yearly programming. As an aviation museum, our aircraft are the core of our collections and traditionally serve as the backbone of most of our programming. Yet, we are unable to send them to schools. As such, we were inspired to explore our archival photo collections and other primary resources to create activity kits that expand the topics covered in TOF.

The creativity we have used in developing remote and virtual learning has given us opportunities to allow greater accessibility and expansion of our education program to reach even more students throughout Edmonton and beyond!

*This article was originally featured on Engage Museums and Communities, the official blog of the Alberta Museums Association on September 15, 2020.