Asim Momim got the last laugh.
At the beginning of the 2012-13 school year, his friends snickered when he told them his high school aerospace engineering class would build an airplane. Sarcastically they asked for a ride. But one afternoon in late May, Momim and his classmates from Clear Springs High School in League City, Texas, were the ones laughing, and cheering, as they watched their two-seater experimental aircraft, dubbed Elder One, take flight.
Flying, like faith, requires confidence in what cannot be seen. That was perhaps the most important lesson the students learned through the Eagle’s Nest Projects (ENP), a unique program that teaches high school students the principles of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) while building, and eventually learning to pilot, a Van’s Aircraft RV-12.
The program was designed to teach students faith in an idea and faith in themselves. Along the way, founder Bob Kelly learned the lessons also had the capacity to teach faith in God.
Kelly created ENP three years ago in Indiana to share his passion for flying, never anticipating the student-initiated discussions about the inextricable link between the unseen forces of flight and God. Only later did he understand: “After all, flying is a faith-based operation.”
At 70 years old, Kelly believes his grandfatherly persona prompted the students’ candor. Although committed to their school work, the teens sometimes floundered in their personal lives. When they asked him about God, he invited them to church. Now, on any given Sunday at New Hope Christian Church in Columbus, Ind., one or more of his students attends services. One ENP student even professed faith in Christ.
Despite its eventual success, getting the program off the ground proved daunting. Kelly first had to convince Indiana school administrators his model for bolstering performance in the public school STEM subjects was no pie-in-the-sky notion.
After almost two years of stumping across the state, Kelly got a call from an administrator at Jennings County High School in North Vernon, Ind., just weeks before the start of the 2010-11 school year. Administrators agreed to host ENP but only as an after-school program. Although Kelly wanted to see it incorporated into the classroom curriculum, he agreed to the less official designation and worked with students to build Eagle’s Nest 1.
By then, the original investor had backed out, so Kelly drew from his own savings to start the project. From boxed kit to test flight, the RV-12 costs about $75,000, including tools. Kelly soon found support from fellow aviation enthusiasts, many of them Christians. Texas Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) pilot and retired businessman Ernie Butcher financed that first plane, even paying off Kelly’s investments. After its completion and maiden flight in July 2012, Butcher told the school to keep the aircraft and use it for flight instruction.
Since that initial investment, a nonprofit founded by Butcher has provided funds to purchase five RV-12 kits for schools across the nation. Butcher’s passion for education, Kelly’s enthusiasm for flying, and their mutual love of the Lord is “a match made in heaven,” Kelly said.
Three years after its start as an after-school project, ENP has made it to the classroom. Elder One, built by the Texas students, was the first completed in the course of a school year as part of an aerospace engineering class, taught by Roger Elder, the plane’s namesake. This year, Clear Springs High School will build its second plane. Three other high schools, two public and one private, will also build planes through ENP this school year.
ENP offers each student builder 20 hours of free flight instruction from local EAA members. Students who complete the training earn a sport pilot license, which allows them to fly solo in the RV-12. EAA pilots also volunteer flight time and serve as mentors during the construction phase—most have built their own experimental aircraft.
Although they’re not overt about sharing their faith, a potentially dangerous proposition in a public school, the volunteer pilots don’t leave their beliefs at home either. And students who take up Kelly’s invitation to attend the EAA AirVenture in Oshkosh, Wis., one of the largest air shows in the nation, hear more about God in chapel services held by Kelly’s pastor, John Sichting.
Because humans are made in the image of God, the work of Eagle’s Nest Projects stirs the “God-inside-us desire to create,” Sichting said. The ability to step back at the end of the process of building and flying an air plane and call it good is deeply satisfying, he said.
Student response to the program begins with incredulity and ends with an overwhelming sense of accomplishment. Veronica Hardy, 17, a senior at Clear Springs High School, said she didn’t think she had what it took to help build a plane: “My first thought when I saw Elder One go up for the first time was ‘Wow. I helped build that!’”
Learning to overcome obstacles is part of the instruction, Kelly said: “If you throw an undoable challenge in front of these kids and convince them they can do it, you will be amazed.”