By Rebecca Currier Curran, MD, PhD
On May 16, 1994, on the football field of a public middle school in rural Louisiana, a one-person airplane lifted off the ground to the cheers of the fifth graders who had built it.
The plane lifted only a few feet into the air, but it was enough. This short flight represented a two year labor of love for a team of educators and two classes of students. This was no model or kit. It was designed and built by children who learned about physics, the scientific method, and construction along the way.
The wings were made from foam wall insulation donated by a local company. The seat was made from an extension ladder and a seatbelt taken from an abandoned jeep. The pilot- a classroom teacher- wore a motorcycle helmet and a bulletproof vest borrowed from the town sheriff’s department.
The pilot was my dad.
It seems to me that teachers and doctors share the same goal: to increase human potential. We also face similar challenges, namely the desire to serve all comers in an unequal system in which funding is uncertain and documentation requirements are ever-expanding.
So what can we all learn from Devall Middle School?
- Setbacks are a feature, not a bug.
Over two years, three different airplanes were built by the students. The first crashed into a tree on a test run when overenthusiastic students pulled too hard on its pulley mechanism. The second was destroyed by a gust of wind.
The students learned from each failure: they gathered data, they changed their designs, they tried again. They learned that failures are a normal part of the scientific process (and life!), not a departure from it.
Sometimes we make mistakes. Sometimes circumstances beyond our control wreck our hard work. If we keep learning and adapting, sometimes we will fly.
- Teamwork is everything.
Idealism is wonderful, but you do not build an airplane solely by throwing a bunch of fifth graders into a room with some power tools and a Teacher With Vision.
You need supportive fellow educators to supervise the use of said power tools, often in their “free time”. You need a principal who is able to build a passionate, cohesive team of educators and then go to bat for them with his superiors. You need to write about the airplane in English class, calculate the speed of liftoff in math class, and have books about flight ready for checkout in the school library.
Good leaders unite their teams around a shared mission, provide support, and leave plenty of room to grow. Good teams build on each other’s successes and carry that mission into everything that they do.
- Reach for the sky.
We tend to think of a classroom experience such as this as only within the scope of an elite private school or a well-funded magnet program.
Devall Middle School sits on the Mississippi River surrounded by sugar cane fields. In 1994 it served about 300 students, most of whom were on the free/reduced lunch program. Their teachers approached them not as “kids with the odds stacked against them” but as “kids here today to learn.”
Those students deserved- and got- teachers who dreamed big. Don’t our patients deserve the same?
- Take a step back.
This story is about real people and has real world lessons. One of the Devall teachers cautioned me against framing it as a sort of one-off fairy tale.
The point is not that, once upon a time, an unlikely group of students got to be part of a cutting-edge educational program. The point is that their teachers stepped out of the pigeonholes of what is and is not normally done in a classroom (well-resourced or otherwise), and instead quite literally tried to fly.
Education and healthcare are complex systems with complex challenges, and it takes more than an inspiring project to change that overnight. Still, this project provided a fresh burst of energy to both students and teachers. As that teacher reminded me, “You can’t reinvent the wheel every time, but building the wheel from scratch occasionally helps you to see other possibilities.”
- Burnout is not inevitable.
In both education and healthcare, our work is never truly done. Our already long hours can make us reluctant to commit to new projects out of a fear of losing what little personal time we have left.
My experience as an eight year old daughter during “The Airplane” years suggests that work and life do not have to be direct competitors. Those years were wonderful for my family. My dad came home with an energy that he shared with the rest of us. His longer hours, many involving face time with his students, gave him a sense of purpose that I’ve wanted to find for myself ever since.
It is perhaps most important to realize that my dad’s joy and energy did not happen after the airplane flew. It happened during the process of working towards that goal, when we had no idea if he would even reach it.
If we are excited by our work, this is a good thing for the rest of our lives. We can even be excited working within a broken system, as long as we feel like we are working towards something bigger and better.
Dream big. The sky is the limit.
Rebecca Currier Curran, MD, PhD is an intern resident in department of family & Preventive Medicine at the University of Utah School of Medicine.
The Devall Flyer is currently in storage at the Louisiana Aviation Museum in Patterson, Louisiana.
Louisiana Public Broadcasting did a brief feature on the Devall Flyer for a children’s educational show. The segment starts at 05:20, and the plane takes off at 07:27. (Permission to use this link was granted by Leslie Bourgeois, MLIS, CA, Archivist with Louisiana Public Broadcasting.) (email@example.com)