Building young minds, building confidence, building a biplane

STOCKTON – Stephen Foster stood beside the skeletal wood frame of a single-seat airplane Thursday afternoon in the auto shop at Weber Institute of Technology in downtown Stockton. A dozen students stood nearby, watching intently and listening as their teacher discussed the parts of the plane and the functions of the various gauges on the instrument panel.

“Why do you think you have two sources of power on a plane?” Foster asked.

A student responded, “In case one fails.”

Foster then explained the need for the “redundancy” of a plane’s key components, the reasoning being that unlike with a car, you can’t pull over to the side of the road if something goes wrong and you could be thousands of feet in the air.

Manufacturing technology is a new class at Weber this year. The 12 students in Foster’s class will be building a Fisher 404 biplane that, when completed, will be capable of flying about 90 mph.

“Even if it were never to fly it would be an awesome prop to teach with,” Foster said. “But this one’s going to fly.”

School board member David Varela and an associate are responsible for the plane’s presence at Weber.

Varela made the arrangements through Build A Plane, a Virginia-based organization that exists to help schools such as Weber get similar projects off the ground at no cost.

Weber’s plane was donated to Build A Plane by a Las Vegas family, Varela said, after the death of the man who had begun assembling it from a kit several years ago.

Varela picked up the unfinished project, loaded it on a trailer, and drove it 340 miles from Camarillo Airport in Ventura County to Stockton last month. When Foster’s students arrived at Weber for the start of school last week, their teacher had a surprise.

“At first they didn’t believe we had a real airplane,” Foster said. “Then they were expecting a jet.”

Senior Brenda Madera, 17, said, “When I found out, I got all excited. I’m really into building and hands-on projects.”

Stockton Unified and other school districts have striven in recent years to increase students’ hands-on educational opportunities. Research abounds showing the benefits of project-based learning.

“You’re engaging the mind and body,” said Dean Lynn Beck of University of the Pacific’s Benerd School of Education. “What I like about the idea of building an airplane is it’s such an authentic experience and so interdisciplinary. It brings together science, math, and teamwork, and combines skills and knowledge in a powerful way.”

Foster said, “Almost everything in aviation has a correlation to the math and science standards in California. By taking the standards they should be learning in other classes and putting them to use in a hands-on situation, it makes all those theories relevant to the students.”

Before actually tackling the remaining assembly of the plane, Foster’s students are studying thrust, drag, lift and weight – the forces of nature that allow the earthbound to defy gravity.

Thursday, the students were divided into two groups, one preparing a presentation on Bernoulli’s Principle of fluid dynamics, the other creating a report on wind and how it creates lift. When finished, the students will use the PowerPoint presentations they have created to teach each other.

Foster and Varela have a vision that extends beyond the current project. Foster wants to develop internship opportunities for students with aviation-related businesses near Stockton Metropolitan Airport. Varela said the Weber program will be a natural high-school option for students completing Marshall Elementary’s space, science and math magnet.

Already, Varela said, he is working at finding a donated plane for students to assemble during the 2013-14 school year. He said when this year’s plane is completed, the goal will be to sell it and use the proceeds to augment the growth of Weber’s new aviation program.

“There’s a lot of work involved in making something like this happen,” Foster said. “But I think the end result could be really spectacular.”

Contact reporter Roger Phillips at (209) 546-8299 or Visit his blog at