How hands-on leadership lessons help young people soar

Randall Robinson was 10 years old when he saw an ad for Aviation Challenge in Boys’ Life magazine.

The discovery began a yearlong campaign to convince his parents that he needed to attend this program, offered at Space Camp in Huntsville, Ala.

“I always had an interest in aviation and being a fighter pilot,” Robinson said. “I saw the movie Top Gun when I was pretty young. I wanted the opportunity to fly in flight simulators and be part of a team.”

So he worked on his parents, putting together a comprehensive presentation that explained all the things he would gain from Aviation Challenge. How it would help him grow. How it would give him leadership experience. How it would even further his Scouting career.

“My parents believed in the mission,” he said.

The summer after he turned 11, Robinson got his wish. His grandparents even chipped in some of the cost. And even though Robinson had built the place up in his mind, it still exceeded his expectations.

“The training was varied and a lot more interactive and hands-on than I expected,” he said. “We were in the woods, in the weeds, crawling and building. Learning how to build fires, escape bad guys and lots of flying.”

Robinson’s story is not uncommon. Parents of young people, and especially parents of Scouts, are looking for hands-on educational experiences for their children. They get those in Scouting, and they get them at Aviation Challenge.

Each summer, hundreds of young men and young women in grades 4 to 12 experience the thrills of Aviation Challenge. Like its better-known sibling Space Camp, which I attended in 1995, Aviation Challenge delivers hands-on, life-enhancing experience that seems tailor-made for the Scouting crowd.

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Skills for life

Robinson himself is living proof of this. He’s an Eagle Scout and said attending Aviation Challenge at age 11 taught him a lesson in working with others, even when the path of least resistance leads elsewhere.

One of Robinson’s friends at Aviation Challenge wasn’t popular with the rest of his teammates.

“That put me in an interesting situation as an 11-year-old,” Robinson said.

Should he join in on making fun of the boy when the crew trainers weren’t looking or stand up for him? Choosing the latter, he persuaded the team to work together and to realize what the boy could contribute.

“This isn’t going to be effective, and we aren’t going to win if we can’t put our differences aside and work on this,” he told them.

It worked, and the group accepted the young man into its ranks. The team was stronger because of it. The benefit of that lesson would last well beyond the end of the week. It would help him in Boy Scouts, and throughout life as well.

“As a young Tenderfoot at the time, there was a lot of pressure in my Scout troop to be cool and get along with everybody, but there’s always going to be different personalities,” he said. “Sometimes personalities clash, but you’ve got to put differences aside for the greater good of what you’re trying to do.”

And that right there could be the most important lesson of this type of hands-on learning: Each individual has something to contribute, but they’ll have more success as a team.

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More than flying

“In college, I had six semesters of math,” Robinson said. “Much of that has been lost, but I can still remember the four forces of flight and the axes of rotation from being able to watch an airplane do that when I was 11 years old.”

Though some of its lessons have a military connection, Aviation Challenge isn’t about training young people for the armed forces. There are no “drop-and-give-me-20” commands here.

They’ll be tested, they’ll get dirty and wet, and they’ll have fun. And they’ll do so by learning in ways impossible in a classroom.

“The focus isn’t on training the next fighter pilot,” Robinson said. “It’s on training the next leader of a Fortune 500 company. The next engineer who designs a long-range drone. The next teacher of the year. The first person to go to Mars.”

Informal education, like the kind young people get in Scouting and at Aviation Challenge, is just as important as classroom education.

“For me, learning something not just from being spoken to or reading it in a book — being able to put their hands on something and physically experience it,” Robinson said, “that allows them to retain that knowledge.”

Space Camp and Aviation Challenge news to know

Three quick items Scouters need to know:

  • Space Camp programs go on sale once per year: during Black Friday weekend. Be sure to check out their deals here.
  • Space Camp is hiring! The camp has openings for camp counselors/crew trainers. Learn more here.
  • You can win a dream trip to Aviation Challenge for one of your Scouts. Click here to enter the contest.