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Since she was a little girl, Skye Mceowen dreamed of a life among the stars.

But until she transferred to Raisbeck Aviation High School as a sophomore, a career in commercial spaceflight seemed light years removed from the boring classes she was taking.

“I went to normal high school for my freshman year and it was horrendous,” Mceowen said. “It felt like my dreams were so far away that I almost didn’t even consider them a possibility.”

This year, the 18-year-old senior has an internship at Planetary Resources, a Bellevue-based startup.

“They’re an asteroid-mining company, so that’s a dream come true,” Mceowen said.

She is among 100 of the public-high-school’s students chosen by lottery to fly on an Alaska Airlines jet from Sea-Tac Airport to the Museum of Flight with dignitaries Thursday morning. The flight kicks off the grand opening of the school’s new $43.5 million building next to the museum’s air park on East Marginal Way South.

There is no school quite like it in the state and only a handful like it in the country that match STEM — science, technology, engineering and mathematics — education with a specific industry. Last year, U.S. News & World Report ranked it the sixth-best high school in Washington.

It’s one thing for a company to host a one-day field trip or send a speaker to class for career day. Aviation High gets much more than that from the Museum of Flight, the Port of Seattle and some of the biggest names in aviation and aerospace, such as Boeing, Alaska Airlines and the school’s namesake, Raisbeck Engineering.

“We invited them to come on board, to help design curriculum, further develop and refine it and to help us assess it,” said principal Reba Gilman.

The school’s new location also counts about 200 aviation-related businesses as neighbors and potential sources for mentors, student internships and judges of student work.

“The high stakes of learning here is not about passing a state test assessment,” Gilman said. “It is about defending your learning to that group of industry experts who know if it’s right or it’s not.”

Home at last

The new three-story building — curved on one side like half a fuselage — is Aviation High’s third home since the school opened in 2004.

Half the students live in the Highline district, which operates the school. Another 20 percent are from Seattle, with most of the others coming from across the Puget Sound area. One sophomore lives with the school’s office assistant and returns home to Wenatchee every other weekend.

In the last few years, about 350 students have applied for about 100 openings in the freshman class. Grades count, but passion for aerospace trumps a less than stellar transcript, Gilman said.

Gilman has spent more than a decade shepherding the school through six graduating classes at two temporary locations: South Seattle Community College and the campus of a middle school.

She got the idea for the school while she was principal at Puget Sound Skills Center in the Highline School District.

There, she saw vocational students who were passionate about overhauling a car engine or becoming a world class chef, but lacked the rigorous academic thinking required for college. She also saw college-bound kids who were reading dry science and math textbooks but lacked passion because they couldn’t see how it was relevant.

It got her thinking: what if a school could marry the passion of hands-on technical work with the academic rigor necessary for college and STEM careers?

She led a team that developed the school’s concept and got a $600,000 planning grant from the Gates Foundation. The school opened in the fall of 2004 with a freshman class of 103 students.

Its hands-on teaching approach now attracts teachers as well as students, though back when it was a new and risky venture, “we were scrounging to get teachers,” Gilman said.

Project-based teaching

Nikhil Joshi is starting his seventh year at the school after spending 10 years at Microsoft, where he was a program manager on the Windows team.

He teaches a class where students work in teams for eight months to design wings, simulating the kind of projects they can expect in their careers.

One year, a team of students decided that one member wasn’t pulling his weight and wanted to fire him. That gave Joshi an opportunity to talk about what firing someone can mean in the real world: potential lawsuits, lowered productivity and costly severance packages.

“I said, ‘All right, I’m going to take two percent off your grade for each of you on the lead team as his severance package.’ They came up with a performance improvement plan for him just like it happens in the real world,” Joshi said.

“Sure enough, that kid came up to speed.”

That kind of project-based teaching also drew physics teacher Scott McComb
in 2005.

This month, his freshmen science students have been learning how to build a heat shield for a two-liter pop bottle rocket that they launch by pressuring water inside the bottle with a bicycle pump.

The heat shield must be stout enough to keep a chocolate bunny astronaut from melting when a heat gun is aimed underneath, but light enough for the rocket to climb at least 10 meters.

They worked out the bugs in repeated trials and now, for “the final round, they’ll be presenting their results to thermal protection system engineers,” McComb said.

“They can’t fake it when they’re presenting to rocket scientists.”

The class already has impressed 14-year-old Miko Curry-Edwards, of Kent.

“You know how you always ask a teacher, ‘how are we going to use this in real life?’ Mr. McComb was the first person who actually gave us an explanation that made sense.”

John Higgins: 206-464-3145 or On Twitter @jhigginsST