BANGOR, Maine — Before Barrington Irving spoke Wednesday to an auditorium full of Bangor middle schoolers, students were asked whether they had any interest in pursuing a career in science, technology, engineering or math (STEM) related fields when they grow up.
A smattering of hands — perhaps 1-in-20 — went up.
After he spoke, the same question was repeated. About half the students raised their hands.
“This is huge, making students aware, conscious of the opportunities available to them in STEM” Irving said.
Irving, who in 2007 became the first African-American pilot to circumnavigate the globe on a solo flight, shared his story with middle school students from James F. Doughty and William S. Cohen schools in Bangor on Wednesday.
Irving, 31, also was the youngest pilot to make his trip around the world at the time. His former record as the youngest pilot to accomplish the feat has been bested by a few fliers since, most recently in 2014 by a 19-year-old Massachusetts Institute of Technology student.
Several of those pilots have cited Barrington’s accomplishment as inspiring them to learn to fly and try to reach that lofty goal themselves.
He’s delivered a similar message, promoting STEM education, to more than 15,000 students across the United States as part of the Dream to Soar program, sponsored by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries America Inc.
Irving, who was born in Jamaica and raised in a rough neighborhood in South Florida, thought he would grow up to be a football player. He earned a scholarship to the University of Florida, but he turned it down in order to pursue aviation after meeting Capt. Gary Robinson, an African-American pilot who would become Irving’s mentor.
Irving went on to found Experience Aviation, a nonprofit that aims to help at-risk minority youth prepare for aviation careers. Inspiration, the plane he flew around the world, was built by some of those teenagers using more than $300,000 in donated parts.
Irving works with Flying Classroom, described as a “global STEM learning adventure” in which he flies around the world, landing to go on learning expeditions. It has taken him to the Amazon to search for venomous snakes used to research new medications, and Oregon, where Nike is working on technology that would allow people to 3-D print their shoes and wear them without ever having to visit a store. The process uses materials such as plastics instead of ink to create shoes. He shared those adventures with the students at Cohen school, with the goal of showing them what things they could work on and develop in STEM careers.
Irving told the students, to their amazement, that some NFL players already are wearing 3-D-printed cleats to test the durability of the materials used to make them.
In 2012, Bangor High School launched a STEM Academy, a program that allows students to engross themselves in STEM research and projects while working toward their diploma. It also involves students in University of Maine mentorship and research while still in high school.
After the presentation, one of the students in the room raised their hand and asked, “Would you let us build you a plane?”
“That’s up to your superintendent,” Irving said, nodding to Bangor school Superintendent Betsy Webb in the front row. “You have to believe in the potential of young people.”
Follow Nick McCrea on Twitter at @nmccrea213.