Hobby trains teens for aerospace work

EVERETT — Long before today’s future aerospace employees take college courses or attend Paine Field’s aviation skills centers, many of them spent much of their youth in hobby shops.

Although hobby shops have been around for decades, they’ve changed a lot lately, filling shelves and displays with model rockets, remote-controlled aircraft and sophisticated model planes that often transform youthful flights of fancy into aerospace careers.

Tim and Janice Abel, longtime owners of Tim’s Hobby Shop on Broadway in Everett, have seen it happen more than once.

“It’s not that big of a leap between building and flying a model airplane and making a real plane,” said Tim Abel, who earned his own pilot’s license when he was 17. “You need to learn about wing angles, engines, aerodynamics, airframes and controls. You can start out with models and then work your way up to a full-size plane.”

Abel was first inspired with aviation and airplanes by watching planes fly when he was young, the same as kids today.

“They start out with an interest, then discover model planes, particularly if they have somebody to help them out a little, to mentor them, a father, neighbor or relative. Even Legos today inspire kids who build airplanes with them,” he said.

He often hires kids to work at his store and sees some of them become enthusiastic about aviation careers.

“One of our employees, Kyle, was here about a year and a half, then landed a $17-an-hour job with Boeing, where he is now. One of the things employers look for right away is what hobbies people have had, what their interests are and how they’ve stuck with their interests,” he said.

Another former worker, Jake Hecla, has been a customer since he was about 4, said his mother, Melanie Jordan. She’s involved in aviation herself as a board member of the Pacific Northwest Aerospace Alliance (PNAA).

“He’s been one of Tim’s best customers, then an employee and now he’s enrolled at Aviation High School in Seattle and loves the challenging curriculum,” Jordan said.

Janice Abel recalls Jake as a customer and employee who dreamed of an aviation career because of his work with models.

“We regularly see young employees who have being hired later by Boeing,” she said.

Tim Abel said changes in the hobby model industry have helped.

“Building models provides a lot of inspiration,” he said. “Radio-control planes are built stronger now, too, with tougher foam, for instance, so that they can take rougher landings. Most people don’t realize the durability of these new materials. You can go from this to building more intricate and realistic stick-and-tissue paper planes that are more efficient in flight and provide higher performance.”

He said the biggest change in radio-controlled models today is in the engines.

“Most of the planes have moved from engines that need fuel to engines that use lithium-polymer batteries that are much more efficient and provide higher performance. It’s a very different system than people are used to,” he said.

Today’s model-inspired career paths are made easier, too, by the growth of middle and high school technology programs, he said.

Kamiak High School in Mukilteo has a rocketry challenge program and other schools have robotics clubs that compete locally, regionally and nationally. The activities take team-building efforts similar to teamwork emphasized at Boeing and other aerospace firms.

“Sure, hobby shops are fun,” Tim Abel said, “but they’re also a real education that inspires kids.”

Along with hobby-shop inspirations, Susan Hegebert, principal of Marysville Middle School, oversees classroom programs. A former commercial aviation pilot with extensive business knowledge, she works hard to infuse more project-based learning in schools, including a focus on aviation.

“We want to give students opportunities to do things that are similar to the outside world, to help them with problem solving and developing critical thinking skills. In their future, they will be working solving problems in the next 20 to 30 years that we don’t even know about yet,” she said.

Hegebert said new applied-math classes in the district help students to use fractions and percentages to design musical instruments, create probability tables and apply their thinking to robotics classes, where they use math and science to design aircraft models or robots with vision and motion sensors.

“This work takes them into computer programming basics and learning how simple machines work,” she said. “They get involved in interesting things and applying thinking skills and math without even realizing it, which can lead to future jobs or careers. They learn basic principles of physics and how machines work. Results show that girls are doing just as well as boys in these classes.”

When students use modeling software programs on computers to design toys or an outdoor playground, they always say they’ve never done anything like that, she noted.

“Many of them are inspired by designing avatars or computer games and don’t even realize the deep levels of skills and knowledge they’re learning and they’re enjoying something that may lead them to future jobs,” she said. “Plus, we hope to create skills that they can take to high levels in future classes.”

In the years she spent as a math teacher, she said students learned many things strictly from textbooks. Today they’re learning how to put classroom knowledge to work in the real world, thanks to the practical side of math, science and astronomy.

“There is such a shortage of students in math, science and computer-related fields,” she said. “My hope is that while we’ll continue to turn out artists and poets we’ll also produce more scientists, more kids engaged in applying classroom lessons to their lives outside of school and students more ready to move into robotics, aviation or manufacturing programs.”

Learn more

Visit Tim’s Hobby Shop at 2405 Broadway, Everett, or call 425-259-5929. Call Susan Hegebert at 360-653-0617.

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