For years Tom Dubick saw his students at Charlotte Latin School master complex math and engineering concepts and use their skills to compete in local and state robotics competitions.
Many students were able to build on those skills and enter technical programs in college. Some have become engineers.
Then he created Fly to Learn, a company that sells a computer-based program that teaches students skills for designing, building and flying airplanes.
Now students at Charlotte Latin and others around the country have a low-cost means to learn engineering concepts. Students say the program is also fun.
Middle and high schools and after-school programs in the United States and Canada are signing up to get Dubick's curriculum.
"One of the reasons I got involved with this is that I could only impact the number of kids that I could see in a normal day (at Charlotte Latin)," he said. "By writing and developing this curriculum, it has an impact for kids in Canada and Alaska that I might never meet."
Time Warner Cable chose Dubick in November as its official Charlotte super connector for his efforts to get children involved in science, technology, engineering and math, also known as STEM.
Time Warner also donated $5,000 to Partners in Out-of-School Time, which helps provide after-school and summer learning opportunities for Mecklenburg County students. POST will help bring the Fly to Learn curriculum to local after-school programs.
Dubick hopes his curriculum will give more students a foothold in engineering or other technical fields, where the demand for workers is high. His is especially interested in seeing more minorities in STEM careers.
Dubick developed Fly to Learn, the name of his product and his for-profit company which sells the program, because he couldn't find a ready-made program that would allow children to design and build airplanes on a computer.
His challenge was to make the program affordable, rigorous and enough fun that students would stick with it even when they found the work challenging.
Fly to Learn uses an old version of the X-plane flight simulator. The older software tends to be compatible with the aging computers found in most schools.
A school has to raise just $400 to get the software licenses for 20 computers, Dubick's curriculum and training. Students also compete in an annual competition by building and flying virtual airplanes. They can compete without traveling from their schools, and that keeps expenses down.
The cost of offering an engineering curriculum through Fly to Learn is affordable compared to $3,000 or more to start a school robotics program, Dubick said.
Schools in North Carolina, South Carolina, New York, Kansas, Alaska and Canada are using Fly to Learn. McClintock Middle School in Charlotte started a Fly to Learn class about a year ago. Fly to Learn classes or after-school programs are operating or in the planning stages in Charlotte at Morehead STEM Academy in University City, Community House and Ransom Middle schools, ImaginOn children's library and Discovery Place.
"I want it (Fly to Learn) in the hands of all our kids," said Cindy Moss, STEM director for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. "We've seen success with kids that are several years below grade level and with kids who are several years above - in terms of feeling like they're winning at the game."