Rolls-Royce Electric Plane: A STEAM Curriculum in Aerospace and Sustainability

Rolls-Royce builds the world's fastest electric plane and offers a free aerospace-based curriculum.

(Image credit of Rolls-Royce.)

(Image credit of Rolls-Royce.)

Rolls-Royce recently completed ground-based testing of the powertrain that will propel its ionBird, the fully electric plane that the company says will be the world’s fastest zero-emissions aircraft. With 6,000 lithium-ion cells driving a trio of YASA 750R axial flux motors, the 1,000 hp (750 kW) single-propeller plane is expected to reach speeds of over 300 mph (480 kph), offering passengers a smooth, speedy and serene voyage. 

The ionBird powertrain test stand. Image credit: Rolls-Royce.

The ionBird powertrain test stand. (Image credit of Rolls-Royce.)

With no emissions and 90 percent powertrain efficiency, the ionBird was designed to be a model of sustainable flight. That fact, in and of itself, is enough reason for me to tip my fedora at Rolls-Royce, but what I really love is that the company went the extra nautical mile by using the plane as a vehicle to deliver a STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, Math)-based curriculum for young children. 


If you’re a frequent reader of, you probably already know about STEM—the addition of art turns it into STEAM. Why mix art with STEM? Two reasons. First, no matter how well-engineered a product might be, people tend to buy things that are aesthetically pleasing. Second, art stimulates creativity—a pretty important asset for scientists and engineers! 

Spiral Curriculum

A spiral curriculum is based on the ideas of noted educators John Dewey and Jerome Bruner, who argued that any concept can be learned at almost any age, as long as it’s presented appropriately. (Ask me how I explained nuclear fusion to my son when he was five.) Very young children need concrete experiences. As learners develop the ability to grasp more abstract concepts, year by year, the subject matter is revisited at a deeper level. Rolls-Royce’s STEAM curriculum follows this methodology by teaching basic science and sustainability concepts to learners from ages three to eleven. The resources are mapped to the UK’s National Curriculum (roughly akin to the US Common Core) and include lesson plans, presentations, graphics and activities.  

Preschool students (Early Year Foundation Stages, or EYFS in the UK) learn about pioneering aviators through books and videos, and also discuss their own or their family members’ experiences with air travel. Students cut out pictures of vehicles from magazines, sort them into land, air and sea categories; count the members in each category; and create bar graphs showing the results. Various materials are evaluated for strength, weight and magnetism. Students build model airplanes out of everyday materials, decorate them, see how well they fly, and then recycle any scraps. If equipped, they can program a Bee-Bot to go to its charging station, taxi down a runway, “fly,” and “land.” (The Bee-Bot doesn’t actually fly.)

First graders continue their materials science studies by conducting deeper experiments and choosing materials for different parts of a plane based on their properties. They perform additional Bee-Bot programming by creating algorithms, writing code, testing and debugging. Students explore and assemble simple machines (levers, wheels, and axles) using everyday materials or construction sets.  

Overview of first-grade STEAM-based activities. Image credit: Rolls-Royce.

Overview of first-grade STEAM-based activities. (Image credit of Rolls-Royce.)

Students exercise their artistic side by drawing on paper and with computer drawing tools, and then (of course) they recycle leftover materials. Math skills are built by having students measure components and discuss basic geometric shapes.

In their second year, students explore material properties such as tensile strength, compressive strength and malleability through bending, squeezing and twisting objects to see how they respond. Based on the knowledge they gained experimentally, students choose materials for particular purposes and articulate their reasons for doing so. Bee-Bot programming continues, this time with students creating a test “flight” path, writing the algorithm and coding it. Engineering skills are developed as students engage in designing an airplane, labeling the components, listing the materials, and identifying moving parts. Artistic activities include designing the nose cone and fuselage using a computer drawing program. Students develop numeric skills by testing various aircraft designs, measuring distances flown and modifying designs based on quantifiable data.

In the next four years, the designs get more intricate as students learn about magnetism, electricity, gears, cams, fluid mechanics, propellers, aerodynamic drag, and, of course, the economic side of engineering—designing and building an aircraft on a limited budget. 

Overview of sixth-grade STEAM-based activities. Image credit: Rolls-Royce.

Overview of sixth-grade STEAM-based activities. (Image credit of Rolls-Royce.)

From Steam to STEAM

Decarbonizing the transportation sector is a giant step toward a greener and more prosperous future, but imparting an ecological mindset to the next generation is equally important. Engineers from my era tend to treat sustainability as an afterthought because, quite frankly, most of us weren’t introduced to the notion until recently. Rolls-Royce is taking a proactive approach by creating a curriculum with sustainability embedded into it, making clean technology a core concept rather than an appendix. The steam engine powered the industrial revolution, so maybe it’s appropriate for a STEAM engine to propel the green revolution.