Oh, the Places You Will Go … in STEM!

By Sarah Benish, Twitter @SarahEBenish

My first Young Eagles flight in 2002 was more than just an airplane ride (well, technically, it was in a hot air balloon). While I grew up in Oshkosh, I did not come from a family of pilots, so everything from helping with the preflight inspection to actual in-air flight was new to me. My first Young Eagles flight (and second and third) was just the beginning of my lifelong interest in aviation that sparked my pursuit of a STEM career.

Young Eagles introduced me to Women SOAR (now GirlVenture), a program to engage and inspire high school girls interested in aviation during EAA AirVenture Oshkosh. Throughout the week, I met amazing women mentors in a spectrum of STEM-related fields, received hands-on instruction building wood wing ribs to rockets, and participated in group team-building exercises. I had not met any women pilots before, let alone girls my age who were interested in aviation, and I felt like I truly belonged, even though I was not a pilot. One of my favorite memories was listening to stories told by the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP), the first women federal civilian pilots during World War II. 

The Young Eagles program also made me eligible for flight training scholarships, which I was awarded toward the end of college. Upon graduating and earning my private pilot certificate, I entered graduate school in atmospheric chemistry to study air pollution in the Washington, D.C./Baltimore area. I was drawn to this program because I would help measure air pollution onboard a twin-engine Cessna 402B, equipped with a suite of meteorological and trace gas instruments installed on tall racks where the seats used to be. Even as a first-year graduate student, I soon began helping with flight planning since I knew what weather we could fly in, how to calculate weight and balance when we added or moved instruments around, and could translate local flight restrictions (pertinent in DC’s SFRA and FRZ).

Aerobatic pilot Kirby Chambliss congratulates Sarah Benish for receiving the GoPro/EAA “Go Fly” Flight Training Scholarship during EAA AirVenture Oshkosh 2014.

Twenty years after my first flight, I can see how the Young Eagles program opened doors for me both personally and professionally in STEM. Making friends during Women SOAR who were also interested in aviation, combined with regular mentoring sessions from women who believed in me, helped cement that I belonged in STEM. Research has shown girls lose interest in STEM fields in middle and high school due to conformity to societal expectations and lack of female role models, and I was fortunate that Women SOAR fought these problems head on.

In addition, my flight training, made possible by my first Young Eagle’s flight, helped me become a better scientist because my practical knowledge of physics and meteorology informed my understanding of atmospheric dynamics and air pollution transport. Now a physical scientist at the Environmental Protection Agency, my work supports the development of air pollution control strategies and regulations to reduce air emissions from the power and energy production sector.

The Young Eagles program is turning 30 this year, and volunteer pilots have given more than 2.2 million flights over that time. This program has been a huge success due to an incredible community of pilots and volunteers working to inspire kids like me to pursue aviation. Thank you — your dedication and commitment to the next generation of aviation has made a difference!

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