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Written by Sally Ibarra Barceló
Photography by Dan Austin

Lakeland is a pioneer in creating the world’s first purposely built aerospace-based hands-on STEM learning laboratories for the engagement in education acceleration of young adults in America.

The race for closing the STEM achievement gap is on everyone’s radar––from educational goals across our nation to career achievements, and technology developments, the Aerospace Center for Excellence (ACE) is leading the way in this race with the opening of their new SkyLab Innovation Center in Lakeland.

The Aerospace Center for Excellence (ACE) education campus blueprint has expanded significantly in the 47-year history of the organization’s mission to educate and accelerate the next generation of aerospace professionals. The SkyLab Innovation Center marks the world’s first-ever purposely built, hands-on aerospace learning facility which will engage, educate, and accelerate young women and men into successful careers.

Lakeland Aerospace Center: With it’s 8,000 square feet of a new multi use facility, the space converts comfortably to educational, event, exhibit, and separate laboratory classrooms.

“The Aerospace Center for Excellence and its main signature building initiative is nationally recognized as a ‘solutions pioneer’ in the worldwide need for a greater STEM-prepared workforce,” says John Leenhouts, ACE president and CEO.

The ACE Campus includes the Aerospace Pavilion, the Aerospace Discovery Center at the Florida Air Museum, the Central Florida Aerospace Academy (CFAA) High School, The Lakeland Aero Club – a high school flying club, the Piedmont Experience – a Boeing 727 classroom, the Piedmont Hangar, the Tom Davis Education Center, the Buehler Restoration Center, and the Crossfield Discovery Center.

ACE’s commitment is to provide curriculum-centric and standards-based K-12 STEM learning with cutting-edge aviation and Aerospace STEM hands-on educational opportunities offering programming which helps serve the critical necessity for pilots and aircraft technicians to help support the growing aviation and aerospace industry.

In collaboration with the Polk County Public School system, ACE created a curriculum that allows students to learn theories in the classroom and then apply that knowledge in the lab to see how it works. “For example, when the students draw a vector on a piece of paper and figure out the X and Y coordinates and then you place that information into the application technology in the lab, it becomes a light path in the sky,” explains Leenhouts.

The SkyLab Innovation center offers top-of-the line technology to equip the students with a holistic hands-on approach and learning experience.

The SkyLab Innovation Center’s goal is to re-engage the youth of today in STEM learning opportunities so they are excited about science, math, and technology. The program focuses on demonstrating to eight, nine, ten, and eleven-year-old students that science and math are fun. “We want to give these students the tools they need, in a laboratory environment, to learn about the career paths available to them within the industry. Whether they go to college, or they pursue a trade school career – there are plenty of options within the scope of STEM education,” says Leenhouts.

With Phase One construction complete, ACE SkyLab has now attracted national interest and exposure to replicate the Skylab Innovation Center Model for STEM and Aerospace STEM education in other states.

The Skylab Innovation Center features 8,000 square feet of a multi-use facility, the space converts comfortably to educational classrooms and laboratories, event spaces, and exhibit halls. Other major components of ACE SkyLab include signature interactive installations and initiatives with a new state-of-the-art simulator training lab, holographic theatre/planetarium, aerospace resource center, and a new ACE corporate headquarters and educator planning space.

This expansion has significantly grown the STEM and Aerospace STEM learning ecology footprint allowing ACE to become a key facilitator in creating a pipeline of aerospace and engineering professionals for aerospace companies in the U.S. and all over the world.

“Project SkyLab has expanded capacity for all of ACE’s aerospace programming, including Aerospace Discovery at the Florida Air Museum, Central Florida Aerospace Academy, the Lakeland Aero Club, the Buehler Restoration and Skills Center, the Crossfield Educational Building, as well as, Summer Camp Programs and Student Outreach, and this is only the beginning,” – John Leenhouts ACE President and CEO

“Project SkyLab has expanded capacity for all of ACE’s aerospace programming, including Aerospace Discovery at the Florida Air Museum, Central Florida Aerospace Academy, the Lakeland Aero Club, the Buehler Restoration and Skills Center, the Crossfield Educational Building, as well as, Summer Camp Programs and Student Outreach, and this is only the beginning,” says Leenhouts.

Through the pandemic and ever-changing global priorities, our world needs scientists and engineers. Future aerospace professionals have an opportunity to be more equipped and best meet the challenges of the next global pandemic because of the training they can now receive at the ACE SkyLab facility.

“Aerospace engineers are fundamentally system engineers. Aviation mechanics are fundamentally mechanics – problem solvers.”

Leenhouts says, “Aerospace engineers are fundamentally system engineers. Aviation mechanics are fundamentally mechanics – problem solvers. ACE and ACE SkyLab nurture these interests from Pre-K through college by offering a variety of programs.”

Project SkyLab has created a wide range of opportunities for both formal and informal STEM learning and museum programs while also leveraging partnerships with higher education training partners who utilize the ACE facility to expand their curriculum centers and workforce training programs. Some of those higher education partners to Project Skylab include Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, Southeastern University, Polk State College, and Florida Polytechnic University.

The program offerings include: STEM and Aerospace STEM Discovery at the ACE Florida Air Museum, a program where people of all ages are introduced to innovators and inventions both past and present, as well as, hands-on STEM and Aerospace STEM learning exhibits. The Central Florida Aerospace Academy (CFAA),  a program for high school students to train for aerospace career paths as professional pilots, mechanics, drone operators, avionics technicians, and engineers. The Lakeland Aero Club offers students an after-school hours program, which helps develop aerospace skills by building, maintaining, and flying real aircraft. ACE Summer Camp Programs and ACE Student Outreach are intentionally created for students to gain skills and knowledge while exploring aerospace opportunities. They engage through group activities, such as the mobile planetarium and Kit Fox mobile aircraft on the ACE campus and in their local schools. ACE’s James C. Ray Scholarship Program gives ACE staff an opportunity to mentor and support students as they pursue certificates and degrees. ACE Crossfield Educational Building is a program designed to allow students to earn FAA certification as Airframe and Powerplant mechanics. Last but not least, the ACE Buehler Restoration and Skills Center gives adults and students an opportunity to collaborate together and tackle challenging aircraft restoration, construction, and maintenance projects.

“None of this would be possible without literally the tens of thousands of volunteers over the years and a community to partner with,” – Leenhouts

Aerospace Center for Excellence is a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization, year-round funding proceeds are generated from the Sun ‘n Fun Aerospace Expo, additional fundraising, and donations. “None of this would be possible without literally the tens of thousands of volunteers over the years and a community to partner with,” shares Leenhouts.

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