Hillsboro aviation teacher aims to diversify the industry
Sheri Brownlie has had quite the year.
From the grand opening of her O-ACE classroom at the Hillsboro Airport last spring, to a trip through the skies with the Air Force’s Thunderbirds pilots, Brownlie has had plenty to celebrate in the world of aviation and education.
Brownlie teaches Hillsboro School District’s Oregon Aerospace Careers for Everyone (O-ACE) courses. It’s a program run in partnership with the school district and the Port of Portland, thanks to charitable donations made by the Oregon Air Show Charitable Foundation.
Not only is she tasked with introducing the next generation of pilots, mechanics and air traffic controllers to the education they need to enter this field, but she is also trying to get more women and people of color interested in aviation, which has historically been dominated by white men.
“Our goal is to reach as many students as we can, of a variety of backgrounds,” Brownlie said. “The majority of aviation is … pilots who are white males. It’s always been like that, but it is slowly changing, and this program is going to make that change faster.”
Brownlie, a pilot herself, pointed out how impactful it is that her students, who have likely never met a pilot in-person before, see a woman in this role as their first exposure to the industry.
Brownlie comes from a background of teaching migrant students who don’t speak English as their first language. She is fluent in Spanish, though she draws a distinction between that and being genuinely bilingual, “which really uses different parts of your brain.”
Even still, her Spanish proficiency means she can reach students, but mostly parents, with information about the program who may not normally be exposed to it.
O-ACE was started to address a current and projected shortfall of new talent in aviation. National and international airlines see a need for hundreds of thousands of new pilots and mechanics this decade to meet future demand.
Students in the O-ACE courses have the chance to feed into a similar program at Portland Community College, fast-tracking them for careers in the aerospace industry.
Brownlie says she spreads the word about the program through district assemblies and by visiting local middle schools, where students can catch the flight bug before they get to high school.
Students have seized on the opportunity to take a unique course, and they praised Brownlie’s hands-on teaching style.
“I think Mrs. Brownlie has really taken the program into her own hands,” said Century High School junior Carson Bell. “I think a lot of this wouldn’t really be possible without her, and I couldn’t quite imagine anyone else in her place.”
Students also enjoy the opportunity to have class right there at the airport, able to see firsthand and practical use of the scientific processes Brownlie teaches in class.
For her efforts, Brownlie was not only nominated as a 2023 Amazing Educator, but she also got to fly in a F-16 Fighting Falcon during a ride-along with the U.S. Air Force’s Thunderbirds squadron during last year’s Hometown Heroes program, which recognizes public servants in local communities.
Brownlie said experiences like the F-16 flight, and partnerships with Hillsboro’s aerospace industry, are helping to grow the O-ACE program and attract more people to the industry — especially those that may not normally get that exposure.
“As we get the word out there, we’re seeing the program grow,” Brownlie said. “I have more females this year than ever before. Last year, I had five over the course of the entire year. Now I have eight in just one semester. That speaks for itself.”