On his way to graduating magna cum laude from FMU, Irving got the idea to fly around the world. In 2005, while still in college, he founded Experience Aviation, a nonprofit based at the Opa-Locka Executive Airport, just north of Miami, that aims to inspire kids to pursue careers in the aviation industry and show them practical applications for all the stuff they’re taught in science and math classes. He hoped to turn the publicity from his global flight into money for the nonprofit, but he hadn’t intended on making it into a full-time job until he was halfway around the world on his record-setting flight. Out there all alone, he was being kept company by 300,000 kids who were following his flight and interacting with him online.
“I realized then that I had something special,” Irving says. “I had the attention of young people. That’s not easy to get these days.”
He’s got that right — especially when it comes to math and science. In a recent ranking of 31 developed countries by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, U.S. students placed 25th in math and 17th in science. Just two decades ago, the U.S. ranked near the top in both subjects. Irving thinks he knows why we’re falling behind.
“Kids are bored,” he says. “It isn’t that they don’t want to learn, it’s that the current methodology of teaching doesn’t appeal to their attention spans. And their attention spans are getting shorter and shorter because technology is getting faster and faster, so we need different ways to teach.”
Those are the broader goals behind Experience Aviation: to change the way difficult subjects are taught to kids and to get kids excited about learning. Fabio Alexander Vasquez, one of Irving’s lead partners, says Irving is already accomplishing this feat.
“Kids today can look up to celebrities or athletes or maybe even politicians, but there are no educational heroes,” he says. “Barrington can be that hero. You don’t come across too many high-school football superstars who will give up scholarships and the potential to carve a path into the NFL to, instead, go into education. Working with Barrington, we can make education both more intellectual and more cool.”
Consider what Irving has been doing since he completed his first around-the-world flight. Through Experience Aviation, he’s created Science, Technology,Engineering and Math (STEM) course work for kids that involves children from both wealthy and poor parts of Miami getting to work on flight simulators, taking tours of commercial aircraft, conducting experiments in meteorology and even taking the occasional flight with Irving.
Then there’s the 10-week Build & Soar program, in which kids built, with the help of mentors, an airplane two years ago and a race car last year. They installed engines and riveted wings onto airframes and did all kinds of things you might not think a kid as young as 8 might be able to do.
“I don’t say to kids, ‘Hey, I want you to solve this trigonometry problem or this physics problem or this chemistry problem,’ ” says the man kids call Captain Irving. “I say, ‘I want you to build this plane or this race car.’ They don’t believe that they can do those things, so you have to empower them to believe that they can fly a plane, be an astronaut, be a scientist or build a supercar.”
Next October, he’ll empower a lot more youngsters, as students and teachers will be able to access the flying classroom from an online portal containing math and science lessons. Initial interest from educators and sponsors was so great, in fact, that the trip was pushed in late 2012 from this October to fall of 2014, to increase the scale of the project even further. Irving’s proposed path will include stops around the globe during which he’ll introduce kids to archeologists, geologists, biologists, engineers and astronauts. And Irving plans to partner with NASA and the National Geographic Society on numerous expeditions out of the plane, some of which will be shared in real time. Irving will tag sharks in the Pacific Ocean. He’ll explore ancient history in Israel and study longevity of life in Japan. He’ll visit the Taj Mahal in India and the Great Wall of China. And the former fullback and fearless aviator will do one thing that has him a little nervous: He’ll climb Mount Kilimanjaro. Captain Irving, you see, has a fear of heights.
“Hey, I’m just a kid from Miami,” says Irving, whose goal in climbing the mountain, in part, is to highlight pollution. “I’ve never climbed a mountain before, and staring off the edge of a cliff is different from being in a plane. In a plane, I know how everything works. And knowledge is power."
Joseph Guinto, who wrote about rappelling in Utah’s canyons for American Way in October 2011, shares Barrington Irving’s fear of heights.