In 2015, the idea for the Aerospace Center for Excellence (ACE) was born. It was not the first effort that the board of the SUN ‘n FUN Aerospace Expo had made to emphasize aviation education or the utility of aviation in the development of youth into adults, but it has the potential to be the most impactful. Since 1975, when the first SUN ‘n FUN Fly-In was held, the focus has consistently been on reaching and inspiring young people. ACE is the ultimate fulfillment of that focus and our best tool yet for driving long-lasting, positive improvement for future generations of youth.
The entire history of SUN ‘n FUN and its 50-year investment, not only in Lakeland and Polk County but also in the broader aviation community, is a story about the rewards of joining forces to accomplish a higher purpose. ACE itself is merely a continuation of the effort made by so many to build the Florida Air Museum in 1991. This was the first permanent education building on the SUN ‘n FUN campus, and it is not a coincidence that the Museum was established to continue the work of SUN ‘n FUN to inspire and educate young people year-round, not just once a week in the Spring. By 2019, ACE and SUN ‘n FUN were ready to innovate again by constructing the first purpose-built, aviation STEM learning facility and, thanks to very generous individuals, foundations, and companies, the Ramus Skylab Innovation Center opened in 2021, ready to serve the community and help young people discover their future, a bright future, full of possibilities and opportunities.
So, why aviation? We get asked that a lot. There are a couple of answers to that question. First, there is a huge need for current and future workforce in the aviation/aerospace industry. This is a high-wage, high-growth field, and it offers incredible opportunities for young people. Opening these doors when they are young helps plant the seed and encourages our young people to remember how cool aviation is when it comes time for them to make serious decisions about what they might want to do with their lives.
The second answer to the “why aviation” question is “because it works.” Flight has captivated humankind since the beginning of recorded history. Maybe you suffer from the uncontrollable need to look up every time you hear an airplane or helicopter overhead. Young people find a lot of inspiration in the image of an aircraft. The aerospace industry is just plain cool. It is a remarkably effective hook for obtaining and holding the attention of young people, a task that is increasingly harder and harder to accomplish in our modern world.
As we at ACE continue to look for ways to inspire the next generation and leverage the strength of our community to accomplish this goal, we were ecstatic to find a kindred attitude in our Superintendent and throughout the entire team at Polk County Public Schools, especially in the Science department. What started as a dream approach to student enrichment quickly became a reality thanks to the belief in this mission throughout the municipalities in the county. Together, we have been able to build an innovative field trip program that will allow every fifth grader in Polk County the opportunity to participate in a visit to the ACE campus at zero cost to the students, teachers, or the district.
The Lakeland, Bartow, and Winter Haven airports all contributed the funds to support visit and travel expenses for the program and the district took no delay in sharing this awesome opportunity with the schools. At the time of this writing, we are two weeks into the field trip program and have over 3,800 fifth graders signed up to take advantage of this learning opportunity. The students will be able to explore Mars, launch rockets to the International Space Station, and delve into the rich history of aviation in our society and in Florida specifically via their tour of the Florida Air Museum.
None of this is possible without a village of similarly interested folks, and this is just one example of the tremendous results of partnerships we at ACE enjoy in our community. We look forward to the future and how much of that future will grow out of Polk County. Indeed, the future is bright, and it is made brighter when we build it together.