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Off We Go Into the Wild Blue Yonder
July 20, 2011
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  • July, 18, 2011
    By Robin Lally

    Christine Zardecki, a research associate at the Rutgers-based Protein Data Bank, and Tahreen Chowdhury, who graduated this spring with a master’s degree in physics education, aren’t the type of women who turn down a challenge.
    Still, sitting in a cockpit, flying a plane, they both insist, was never on their radar screen or bucket list.
    “Never in my life did I think I would do this,” said Chowdhury, who was selected along with Zardecki and 10 other New Jersey and Pennsylvania STEM, science, technology, engineering, and math educators to participate in a “Leaders Take Flight” program that concluded with a two-hour flying lesson.
    The same could be said for Zardecki who believed that, other than Amelia Earhart, more often than not, it was men who piloted planes.
    “I have to say that I never gave it much thought and didn’t think it was something that I would ever do,” Zardecki said.
    A unique program aims to open up the world of aviation to women in science, engineering, technology, and math.
    That was until these two science educators each received a $2,500 scholarship awarded by the U.S. Department of Transportation Garrett A. Morgan Technology and Transportation Eduction Program. The aim: to immerse these female educators in the world of general aviation in an intensive two-day program that its founders hope will encourage students, particularly girls, to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering , math, and aviation.
    “Can you imagine a new generation of enthusiastic, highly motivated kids who got excited about science, technology, engineering, and math through general aviation activities,” said Linda Castner, a pilot and co-owner of Alexandria Field, a small airport in Hunterdon County where the program is offered. “It could reshape our country and the world.”
    Castner, who started the program in 2005, said the “Take Flight” workshops use airplanes as a learning environment where a person can develop leadership skills important for the classroom or a business setting.
    In order for someone to know courage, Castner believes, they must first understand fear and risk. In the classroom and in the cockpit women who participate in the program gain a sense of seeing other women do what society has long said they could or should not do, Castner said.
    Although the number of licensed female pilots has increased in the last decade, from 5.6 percent in 2001 to 6.7 percent today, a relatively small number of pilots are women.
    Zardecki, who works with students, educators, and research scientists to promote an understanding of biology at the molecular level, said the experience – including classroom instruction, experiential activities and two hours in the air – gave her the self-confidence needed to adapt to new situations and go beyond her comfort zone.
    “When you just think about going up in the small plane and actually flying, it is a scary thought,” Zardecki said. “But it is also challenging and when you get through it, you think to yourself that was not as bad as I thought. In fact, it was exhilarating.”
    Chowdhury, who will start teaching physics at New Milford High School in September, said when she was flying the plane she felt empowered, a feeling she believes is important if you are to master any task.
    “I felt like I was in control of something huge,” said Chowdhury who plans on sharing her experience with her students this fall. “I would do it over again.”

    Date: 2011-07-18