In this lesson, students will learn about Amelia Earhart’s groundbreaking career as a female aviator. After viewing a video about her life, students will examine her first pilot’s license and will read a letter she wrote to an aspiring aviator. The lesson concludes with students designing a compass rose to honor Earhart’s legacy.
20 - 40 minutes
- Aviator - pilot of an aircraft
- Accolade - an award
- Grueling - very difficult
Aerodynamics refers to the movement of air around an object. Understanding the laws of aerodynamics was essential to people learning how to develop the first planes. The four aspects of how air moves around a solid object are lift, weight, thrust, and drag.
Learn more about Aerodynamics:
- Challenge of Flight, PBS LearningMedia
- Aerodynamics: What Causes Lift?, PBS LearningMedia
- What Is Aerodynamics?, Nasa
Background on Amelia Earhart | Aviator, Record-breaker, and Activist
Amelia Earhart was born in Atchison, Kansas, on July 24, 1897. Until seventh grade, she was homeschooled by her mother, who didn’t believe in traditional roles for women. When she finished high school, Amelia Earhart became a nurse’s aide in the Red Cross, taking care of wounded soldiers during World War I.
After the War ended, Earhart enrolled at Columbia University to study medicine. After one year, she left to join her parents, who had moved to California. On December 28, 1920, her father bought her a demonstration ride on an airplane on a Long Beach airfield. She was hooked! Earhart began taking lessons just six days later. She was so devoted to learning to fly that she worked odd jobs, like truck driving, in order to pay for her lessons.
That summer, Earhart purchased her first airplane, a bright yellow biplane that she nicknamed “the Canary.” By October 1922, she earned her first world record, reaching an altitude of 14,000 feet, the highest for any female aviator.
In 1924, Earhart returned to the east coast, working near Boston as a teacher. She joined the Boston chapter of the American Aeronautical Society, and was elected its vice president. Around Boston, she was hailed as a local celebrity, flying in and out of its airports and writing articles for local newspapers about the future of commercial flight.
In 1928, Earhart was selected by the coordinators for an aviation publicity project (including her future husband, publisher George P. Putnam) to be the first woman to fly across the Atlantic Ocean. On June 17, 1928, she and two male pilots flew from Newfoundland to Wales. But Earhart never once piloted the plane during the trip. Although she was hailed as a hero upon her return, she became ever more determined to make her own records—as a woman.
Indeed, just two months later, she became the first woman to fly solo back and forth across North America. On May 20, 1932, Earhart made her historic first female solo nonstop flight across the Atlantic. On January 11, 1935, she became the first person of either gender to fly solo across the Pacific Ocean from Hawaii to California. Flying this tremendous stretch of open ocean had been unsuccessfully attempted numerous times before Earhart succeeded.
By 1935, she was so renowned as both a pilot and a feminist that Purdue University hired her to counsel female students on their careers; she also served as a technical advisor to its Department of Aeronautics. In return, the university helped to finance Earhart’s round-the-world flight in 1937. Tragically, during the last leg of the journey—across the Pacific via tiny Howland Island—Earhart’s plane disappeared. The Navy and Coast Guard conducted an extensive air and sea search, but it was never found.
Amelia Earhart used her fame and respect to help found the Ninety-Nines, an international organization for female aviators. She was the organization’s first president. Earhart also was very keen to popularize commercial aviation –- flying for fun and as a tool for transportation. She wrote books and articles in popular magazines, and conducted lecture tours around the country, again using her fame to bring awareness to a topic that she deeply cared about.
Ask students: Have you ever done a sport that sometimes leads to injury (e.g. skateboarding, biking downhill fast, ice skating, football, gymnastics, diving)? What motivated you to engage in this activity in spite of the risk?
Introduce Amelia Earhart:
Amelia Earhart, a pioneer aviator, knew from the moment she first flew in a plane that she wanted to become a pilot, even though she lived during a time when many people thought that women should engage only in traditionally feminine activities.
Video and Class Discussion (10 minutes)
Distribute the Graphic Organizer for students to fill out while viewing the video.
Discussion questions after viewing:
1. Amelia Earhart’s mother taught her at home during her early school years, and she did not believe that girls could only engage in traditionally feminine activities. How might this have influenced Earhart’s choices later on?
2. What about flying do you think appealed to Amelia Earhart?
3. Why do you think Earhart thought it was important to establish a group like the Ninety Nines?
Examining Primary Sources
Visual Primary Source Activity (5 minutes)
Project or make copies of the photo to the right. This is Amelia Earhart’s first pilot’s license. When it was issued, Earhart was only the sixteenth woman to be granted a license. The Federation Aeronautique International (or World Air Sports Federation) was established in Paris in 1905. Prior to Earhart’s gaining her license, pioneer aviator Orville Wright was chairman of the U.S. branch of the World Air Sports Federation. It remains the governing body for recreational pilots and is now based in Lausanne, Switzerland. The word “brevet”, or promotion, is often used in military settings.
Although this license and its leather case were recently exhibited at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington D.C., they belong to the 99’s Museum of Women Pilots located at the organization’s headquarters in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.
- Describe the photo of Amelia Earhart. What can you see in her facial expression? What do you notice about her clothing?
- Pilots were not required to wear aviation equipment in their license photos; why do you think Amelia Earhart chose to wear her cap and goggles, items meant to protect pilots from wind and cold once they were in flight?
- Do you think you would enjoy flying as a recreational activity? Why or why not?
Written Primary Source Activity (10 minutes)
In 1933, a 13-year-old girl wrote to Amelia Earhart about her desire to pursue aviation. The letter was bought by the Raab Collection in suburban Philadelphia for $15,000 in January, 2016. Students will read Earhart’s reply and assess her response.
Download the Primary Source Activity [PDF].
This can be done as an in-class follow-up to the lesson, as a homework assignment or as a multi-day in-class project.
To be completed using the Graphic Organizer [PDF].
The Oklahoma City headquarters of the Ninety-Nines, an organization of female pilots recently completed a tile compass rose, a traditional symbol and tool of navigation, that celebrates the organization. To see images, go to http://www.ninety-nines.org/compass-rose.htm. Design a compass rose to pay tribute to Amelia Earhart as a pioneer in both aviation and women’s rights. (Note: If possible, have students design their compass roses in small groups and then create them in chalk in a school playground or sidewalk.)