Back Story

Troy Thrash

CEO & President, Air Zoo

Troy Thrash has long wanted to see bigger things. It started with the universe: He got his first telescope at age 7, and his first job out of college was working with the Hubble Space Science Institute to fix the optics on the Hubble Space Telescope. Now the aerospace industry veteran has set his sights back on Earth, helping to ignite kids’ passion for math and science. In the past 2 1/2 years that Thrash has been at the helm of the Air Zoo, he has helped transform the museum into an exploratory science center that aims to reach as many kids as it can with the message that science, math and technology are more than subjects in school — they are the future.

How did you end up where you are today?

It really started when I was 7 and got my first telescope from my parents. I went to Villanova and got a degree in astronomy and astrophysics and then went to work on the Hubble Space Telescope. I went back to school and got a master’s degree and then went to work for a satellite software analysis company. I became executive director of the National Aerospace Development Center, in Alpharetta, Georgia, which worked regions across the U.S., from Colorado to Texas to Alabama, to build up their aerospace workforce. We built partnerships between employers, educators, government and military and helped them understand their workforce needs by inspiring kids to go into aerospace.

What I found out was that the regions with the best success in workforce development were those that had either a museum or science center somewhere at their core, because museums and science centers can teach differently than a teacher can in a classroom. Soon after, I became the executive director at the Da Vinci Science Center (in Allentown, Pa.).

My mission there was to develop this cultural institution into something that can help inspire the region’s technical workforce. Over the next five years, that’s what we did. The U.S. Department of Labor hailed us as the model for science centers that are a critical piece of the technical workforce pipeline.

Is that what you’ve sought to do with the Air Zoo?

When a recruiter contacted me about the Air Zoo, my first questions were “What is an air zoo?” — I thought it was about flying animals — and “Where is Kalamazoo, Michigan?” The first time I walked through the Air Zoo’s cloud tunnel I knew it was an amazing place and opportunity to create new and innovative programs that would give kids the knowledge that the math and science they are studying now in school will matter in the future.

By developing education programs and getting industry involved as much as we can, we want to “hero-ize” scientists, engineers and technicians — let kids meet someone who says, “This is what I do at my job, and I love what I do — you can be like me one day.”

In 2 1/2 years, we’ve created 40 new hands-on interactive, inquiry-based programs that run the gamut of science. We have programs in forensic science, magnetism, physics, electricity, and they are working. Three years ago our summer camps had 200 kids enrolled; this summer it was over 700. Our fill rate has doubled. We are thrilled — field trips are up higher, and our paid admissions are up.

Why is this mission so important to you?

Industry is really struggling to find enough technical talent. We have to find a way to give kids an opportunity to see that they can fall in love with science and that it is something they can do with their hands, their minds and their hearts.

For me it’s about impact. I do believe we can provide a very different kind of impact here. This is why I have to be here — it drives me. It’s not the airplane that drives me; it’s what we can pull out of that airplane — the stories behind that airplane, the science, the technology — that is going to ignite something in a kid to take it a step further than to say “That’s something I love” to saying “That’s something I want to do.”

We just want to give every kid that opportunity. If we draw a 3-mile radius around the Air Zoo right now, there are still kids in that circle who do not have the opportunity to get here. That’s what we have to figure out. Over the last year we‘ve gotten some grants and donations to give to schools and community organizations so kids can come here free of charge and to pay for transportation. Another solution is that our programs are portable. We have a very robust outreach program and take the programs to kids where they are.

What keeps you up at night?

Four kids and two dogs.
I have to say, actually, nothing keeps me up at night.
I am always thinking, “What can we do next? What can we do bigger and do better and reach an audience we haven’t reached yet?” But I do that every day at work.
I live in every moment. I am very deliberate about that.

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