California University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Innovation Launches Future Pilots League

Students are intrigued by aviation and motivated by competition. Those two elements are at the heart of the Future Pilots League, a games-based learning activity created by staff from California University of Pennsylvania, a mid-size university located about 35 miles from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (USA).

Dr. Stephen Whitehead, director of the university’s Center for Innovation, and Christopher Allen, the center’s community education manager, collaborated with former military and commercial pilot Scott Keddal to organize the league. They put together 18 pages of rules and guidelines, loaded Microsoft Flight Simulator X: Steam Edition onto some laptops and started visiting high school and middle school principals.

“As an arm of our public university, the Innovation Center’s primary mission is to act a resource for the community. We had been meeting with local teachers who expressed a need for hands-on, real-world-scenario activities that could be offered right in their schools,” Allen says.

“I am very interested in using technology and video games as education tools, and thought it would be really fun to use flight simulator software to teach a variety of skills. I pitched the concept to Scott Keddal, who agreed to share his expertise as a consultant. We outlined a ‘mission’ and launched the Future Pilots League this spring, starting in 12 different schools.”

The competition took off. Working in three- to nine-player FPL teams, the students used technology on loan from the university to master the challenges of air travel logistics and piloting a plane.

Each school received a flight-stick controller and a laptop computer pre-loaded with FSX: Steam Edition to use during the six-week training period and final “flight test.”

Players took on the roles of air traffic controller, first officer and pilot as they completed a multi-part mission. Teams earned points in four stages of each mission: Ground School (Question and Answer); Flight Team and Emblem Design; Pre-Flight Inspection and Mission Execution; and Teamwork/Communication.

The FPL mission was designed to build interpersonal, spatial, logical, verbal and kinesthetic skills — but as far as the players were concerned, they were just having fun. Scores and team rankings were posted online after every flight test, so teams could track their progress from week to week. Pilots joined the Center’s staff to judge head-to-head competition between the top-ranked schools and crown the ultimate winners.

“Throughout the planning process, pilot Scott Keddal stressed the importance of communication by every member of the team,” Allen says. “The winning team was extremely good at communicating with one another at every level, mimicking the realities of aviation. At the same time, they were well organized and knowledgeable about the science behind flight.”

Reaction from both players and teachers was positive — and community support rolled in. A Pennsylvania legislator offered to take players from the winning teams for a ride in her own small aircraft. True to form, the Innovation Center staff created an event at the local airfield, leading tours and bringing in Air Force personnel to talk with students before their flight. On the other side of the Atlantic, Dovetail Games got involved after seeing tweets about the Future Pilots League and how it was using FSX: Steam Edition

“We intend to make this a yearly program,” Allen says, and there is talk of expanding the league to more schools. “We are taking what we learned from this first year and looking for ways to make the Future Pilots League more engaging, educational and, most importantly, fun.”

To learn more about the Future Pilots League or the California University of Pennsylvania Center for Innovation, visit

California University of Pennsylvania is a proud member of Pennsylvania’s State System of Higher Education.

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