FAIRMONT — The aviation industry is playing the long game in North Central West Virginia.

The Marion County National Guard Armory was buzzing with wooden airplanes and drones whizzing overhead as part of the annual NASA Kids Day hosted by NASA’s Katherine Johnson IV&V Education Resource Center.

For the last 20 years, the event known as “Day in the Park” lured middle school students from neighboring counties to the NASA IV&V center in the I-79 High Tech Park to get a taste of the work being done here.

This year, organizers moved the event to the armory on East Side and 100 kids filled the space Tuesday morning. On Wednesday, another 300 students will participate in different kinds of activities relating to the fields of aerospace, aviation and anything else under the science, technology, engineering, arts and math umbrella.

The morning started with several speakers from the industry then the students dispersed into groups to cycle through stations set up around the armory. Activities ranged from flying drones to shooting darts to walking in an inflatable planetarium.

NASA ERC Program Manager Todd Ensign is one of the event’s main coordinators and he said that this event’s main purpose is to build excitement in the students and show them the opportunities available if they pursue a STEAM career path.

“We have a number of industries here that represent everything from science to engineering to advanced technology that we want to highlight,” Ensign said. “We have all these right here in West Virginia. We have the fastest aging population in the country... and we want to help retain the youth here in our state.”

West Virginia University, Fairmont State University, NASA, Aurora Flight Sciences, the National Guard and Engine & Airframe Solutions Worldwide all had booths with activities representing some of the work that’s performed in the Mountain State.

Ensign recalled two conversations he had on Tuesday where he was thanked by fellow professionals who work in the industry. They told him it was events like this that piqued their interest in aerospace and aviation.

One of those two who thanked Ensign was Army National Guard Captain James Wikle, who was instrumental in the collaboration that allowed Ensign and his team to use the armory.

While his personal connection to an event like this was a factor, the National Guard also benefits from more students pursuing careers and degrees in STEAM fields.

“The National Guard has to be involved in the community and that was a big reason we wanted to host this event. The reason the National Guard thinks STEM is so important is that STEM is the future,” Wikle said. “Having an understanding and knowledge of STEM is so important, and we want to build that and foster that in our communities.”

But the careers come later.

The students attending the event at the armory over the two-day event are from six middle schools from around West Virginia. These students are still figuring out what they like and enjoy and careers are the last things on their minds

That’s why Tracy Miller, president of the Mid Atlantic Aerospace Complex, thinks the element of fun is especially important at outreach events like the NASA Kids Day. The jobs will be there later in life, but a chance at having a fun experience may not be.

“The need in the industry right now is not about waiting until a kid enrolls in an aviation-related program, we have to do this kind of fun, hands-on activity that gets kids excited,” Miller said. “We’ll hit them later with the job sector, right now if we get them to fall in love with aviation in some way, we’ve checked a box.

Reach David Kirk at 304-367-2522 or by email at dkirk@timeswv.com.

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