‘Above and Beyond’

In the “Faster” gallery, visitors apply aerodynamic principles to design their own virtual fighter jets and then race against other would-be pilots in a high-speed flying competition.

A simulated space elevator ride. A virtual high-speed flying competition in a fighter jet. A fully immersive, 180-degree theater presentation.

It might sound like the features of a new Playstation 4 game but for Boeing Co., the “Above and Beyond” interactive exhibit opening Saturday at the Gaillard Center in Charleston is a career recruitment tool.

“It’s designed to inspire and engage the next generation of aerospace workers,” said Jessica Jackson, Boeing’s global corporate citizenship manager. “It’s also an opportunity for us to showcase the future of aerospace innovation and hopefully inspire a new generation into STEM education and advanced manufacturing.”

STEM, an acronym for science, technology, engineering and mathematics, is a key focus of Boeing’s community outreach programs, accounting for more than half of the roughly $180 million the aerospace giant and its employees donate each year to educational and charitable initiatives.

“Above and Beyond” is part of Boeing’s effort to get students interested in high-tech careers, the kind that are often overlooked because they fall under a “manufacturing” category long associated with belching smokestacks and dirty jobs.

Boeing wants students to know that today’s clean, advanced manufacturing jobs are different. They involve computers and cutting-edge technologies, including robotics. They produce innovations that improve the quality of life. They pay well, and they’re fun.

Or, in the words of S.C. Commerce Secretary Bobby Hitt: “Making things is cool.”

Hitt and Jay Timmons, president and CEO of the National Association of Manufacturers, said during a forum last week that advanced manufacturers such as Boeing need to do a better job of marketing themselves to tomorrow’s workforce.

“We need to change the perception of a manufacturing career at the primary and secondary school level,” Timmons said.

That’s what “Above and Beyond” aims to do. It might look like fun and games — “It’s very Disney-esque and hands-on,” Jackson said — but there is real learning going on.

“ ‘Above and Beyond’ represents an investment in inspiring curiosity in a new generation to enjoy, explore and create through science, engineering and technology, and to generate belief in their ability to develop the skills to contribute in fields like aerospace as future designers, engineers or business leaders,” said John Tracy, Boeing’s chief technology officer.

The exhibit is one of many initiatives Boeing supports throughout the year to promote STEM education and inspire future aerospace workers.

Dan Mooney, vice president of Boeing South Carolina’s engineering and design center, frequently participates in the company’s DreamLearners program, which takes its name from the 787 Dreamliner commercial airplane the company builds at its North Charleston campus.

DreamLearners participants, which are different student groups that visit most weekdays, get to tour the manufacturing site to see close up how the wide-body jets are built. They hear from Boeing employees about the work they do.

Then those students are divided into groups, each of them charged with designing a paper airplane. One member of a group might be an engineer, another a mechanic and yet another a supply manager.

At the end of the day, each group’s “test pilot” tosses a paper airplane and the one that flies the farthest earns a small gift — a poster for the participants, perhaps — and bragging rights.

“To me, it’s all about creating an exposure that those students might not normally have and opening their eyes ... creating that spark of interest in aerospace that helps them make that connection between what kind of opportunities STEM education can open up,” Mooney said.

Many of the school groups visiting the “Above and Beyond” exhibit also have scheduled time to take part in the DreamLearners program.

Boeing also has outreach programs where employees go to schools, training programs for teachers, STEM-focused camps and extended-day learning programs for students, mentoring programs, apprenticeships and an online curriculum called Curiosity Machine (in partnership with the Iridescent education nonprofit) that guides students, teachers and families through science and engineering design challenges.

“Our No. 1 goal when it comes to our investments in education is to build a pipeline to our future workforce,” Jackson said.

“Above and Beyond” aims to do that through features such as:

“Full Throttle,” which applies aerodynamic principles as visitors design their own virtual fighter jet and race against other players in a high-speed competition.

“Spread Your Wings,” a group flying experience, where motion-sensing technology and computer graphics transform visitors into virtual birds.

“Elevator to Space,” in which visitors ascend to Earth’s orbit aboard a simulated space elevator. During the ascent, digital displays and a virtual tour guide describe the scenery, aircraft, spacecraft and natural phenomena encountered along the way.

“A sense of wonder, discovery and the drive to change the world through innovation is woven into the fabric of our company and our industry and is reflected in the impressive technology, design, and spirit of this exhibit,” Tracy said.

In addition to its focus on education, the “Above and Beyond” exhibit was created as a way to share Boeing’s 100th birthday, which falls on July 15, with communities worldwide.

Three of the exhibits were built by Evergreen Exhibitions and they will be touring cities through 2021.

The exhibit’s first stop, at Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., drew 30 million visitors over three months. Hundreds of school groups throughout South Carolina have already booked reservations for the exhibit when it visits the Gaillard Center for a month.

While the exhibit is targeted to students ages 7-14, it will appeal to almost everyone, Jackson said.

Boeing is underwriting the cost of the exhibit while it’s in Charleston, including free admission for anyone who wants to see it.

Reach David Wren at 843-937-5550 or on Twitter at @David_Wren_