Kanchana Gamage – Founder, The Aviatrix Project

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The Aviatrix Project was set up in 2015 to encourage young people from a range of backgrounds to consider careers in aviation. Completely self-funded, with support from Easyjet and a number of aviation organisations, the project has 165 regular active volunteer pilots, engineers, air traffic controllers and airline crew who carry out visits and workshops with young people to inspire the next generation.

How it all began

From my early years, I was interested in a STEM career, originally hoping to become a pilot or an engineer. Growing up in Sri Lanka below the approach to Colombo airport I dreamt about flying the vast oceans. Moving to England in my teenage years I still held the ambition to become a pilot. Lack of knowledge about opportunities and certainly finances meant that this dream never materialised. Instead I entered a career in teaching, completing a teacher training degree and a Masters at The University of Cambridge. I became a primary teacher and headteacher, and later a University Lecturer leading a PGCE Primary course at Anglian Ruskin University as well as leading an MEd in Leading Teaching and Learning for an education partner at the University of Hertfordshire. These roles are a million miles away from what I could have imagined growing up. And in each role I noticed more and more that more needed to be done for children and young people to encourage them not only into careers in STEM but to raise aspirations.

My passion for aviation remained throughout my life and in my early 30s I gained my private pilots licence. Having been frustrated by the lack of cohesive stem education programmes and the clear lack of diversity in the industry I created the Aviatrix project in 2015. My vision was simple – raise aspirations and inspire everyone to take to the skies!

We’ve been having conversations about the STEM skills gap for years, particularly in relation to the under representation of women in the industry, and I realised I had something quite unique to offer by combining my areas of experience.  By learning to fly, I’d built up quite a lot of contacts within the industry and I wanted to bridge that gap, getting pilots and aviation engineers into schools to talk to people about these fascinating careers.

Our partnership with Easyjet early on gave us exposure and access to pilots who have become our own STEM ambassadors, regularly going into schools to hold workshops or present in assemblies, inspiring young people to do something they never thought could be possible.  We now have such a wide range of volunteers from various organisations and flying disciplines. All our ambassadors have a story to tell. It can be expensive to train to become a commercial pilot, but there are solutions and pathways in, with the right support. We support young people and families with mentoring and signposting them to where they can get up to date information and support. It is also one of our main aims to target young people and schools from disadvantaged areas across the UK. This isn’t just about flying, we open up the whole industry for them and help them understand the exciting world that is out there.

The Project

The aim of the project is to raise awareness, particularly amongst women and girls but most importantly young people from disadvantaged and diverse backgrounds, about aviation as a potential career choice.  Our volunteers regularly visit schools, colleges, aviation events and offer assemblies and workshops as well as offering mentoring and flight opportunities. They aim to inspire young people to aspire to do something they never thought possible. They are from all areas within the industry from pilots, engineers air traffic controllers. They all represent different flying disciplines  from rotary, fixed wing, ballooning, gliders and drones to name a few.

We pride ourselves in using creative and inspiring resources. A number of volunteers are also teachers and they have used principles of excellent teaching and learning to ensure that activities are relevant to the curriculum and engaging. Each visit is personalised to the school and this is a unique trademark of what we offer. We’ve also used a variety of props and artefacts to ensure that children have first hand experience of seeing and feeling parts of planes, maps which further enhances their learning. Whilst we promote aviation as a career choice we have also promoted all types of flying from fixed wing, gliding, ballooning and rotary flying. We are fortunate to have pilots of all levels and disciplines and have had excellent feedback regarding this. A particular favourite recently has been the workshop with display pilots from The Yakovlevs learning about formation flying and aerobatics. As well as the visits in schools and colleges we have also organised aviation days at airfields where groups of children have visited for hangar tours, flight planning workshops as well as learning about the working of an airfield.

Support has been offered at careers days to provide information to students and parents about finance options and scholarships available. It has been an aim to ensure that we reach out to schools in disadvantaged areas and meet students and parents to inspire them to consider aviation career options. Our visits have also increased teacher awareness about the options available so that they are informed about options and organisations who can offer support. We have also organised to support the Nuffield Foundation again this summer. The Nuffield Foundation supports less advantaged yet talented students in Year 12 to complete research projects in STEM subjects. This provides a valuable platform for making connections and evidence for their university applications. Due to the pandemic they have lost a large number of work based placements again for this summer and have changed their approach to offering online placements. We are working together with a number of pilots and researchers to create a research question and resources around the following topic – COVID-19 and the impact on air travel – one year on. We will be looking for students to complete research around the social, financial, environmental impact of the pandemic on air travel across the globe.

There are a lot of plans in place for 2021 including Diversity & Inclusion panels we are hosting with a number of aviation professionals as well as virtual aviation days and school events in the U.K. as well as across the world. We’d love to ensure that we can reach as many communities as possible and also try and encourage volunteers from different disciplines of aviation.

The importance of role models

As a child, I wish I had access to some of the STEM opportunities I’m involved in now. If someone had come into my school as a young woman and shown me about the world of STEM, it would have changed everything. It’s about young people seeing someone that they can actually see themselves becoming. It’s very hard for them to imagine what it’s like to be someone else if they don’t see it in action. You can’t be what you  don’t see – how true is this statement. This is also why it’s so important to have real diversity within our ambassadors, as even now, there are perceptions around what scientists, doctors and pilots look like.  Ultimately there are no limits, no barriers, only the ones put there by society in the past. I feel a great sense of responsibility as a STEM ambassador from a BAME community to ensure I’m a strong role model.

But role models can’t work in isolation. Nor can it be a tokenistic gesture – it can’t be one assembly or one workshop or one stem outreach event. Our work needs to be targeted and sustained. What I’ve learnt from my career spanning 15 years in education is that children form perceptions at an early age. Around 6-7 years old they form perceptions about careers and gender stereotypes. Of course career aspirations change but those early ideas will stay. If you have stem aspirations at 8, 10 you’re likely to have them at 14, 18 and into university and beyond. So the more we can add to their science capital now the more likely we will see young people from diverse backgrounds enter the industry in the near future.

If we know that gender imbalance takes hold at such an early age it’s important to know that outreach in universities and colleges – even secondary – isn’t the best answer. We need to start much much younger. That’s why I am so passionate about the work we do. We do a huge amount of work  the primary age range – in primary schools, early years settings and also community groups. I see it as cultivating and nurturing future talent. I know we will see young people we’ve worked with on the flight deck and as engineers and in STEM careers in the future.

All the projects and our work can be found on – www.theaviatrixproject.com 

Kanchana Gamage

22nd April 2021

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