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African Americans Fly High With Math And Science

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This Black History Month, Tell Me More is taking a look at African Americans in the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and math) who are inspiring future generations.

Today, Barrington Irving shares how his sky high dreams became a reality. A chance encounter in his parents' bookstore put him on a path that would make him the youngest person and first African American to fly solo around the world.

Barrington Irving remembers a man walking into the store dressed in a pilot's uniform. The man asked whether Irving might consider a future in aviation. "I immediately just said to him, I don't think I'm smart enough to do it," Irving remembers/ "Then I asked him how much money he made and after he answered that question, I took an interest in aviation."

Irving's success was far from a sure thing. His family immigrated to the United States from Jamaica when Irving was six. Private flight private lessons were out of the question - so Barrington Irving did what he thought was the next best thing.

He saved his money to buy a flight simulator game that allowed him to fly anywhere and in any kind of weather conditions from the safety of his PC. It was a start, and made him passionate enough to save more of his money so that he could afford flight lessons.

By the time he turned 21, Irving had lost friends to violence and prison, so he was already thinking about his own legacy. "I'll never forget asking myself the question, 'what's one thing I can do whether I live or die that would be worth something?'" he tells NPR's Michel Martin. Irving says an idea hit him - fly around the world.

It was one of those ideas, Irving recalls, that was great in principle, but a struggle in reality. Barrington Irving hit roadblock after roadblock for nearly two and a half years. Funding was difficult to come by. Yet that didn't stop Irving from pursuing his dream.

So at the age of 23, Barrington Irving finally had his plane ready for his flight around the world. But he had no radar, no de-icing system and thirty dollars in his pocket when he left Miami.

Some 97 days later, when Irving returned he was greeted by thousands of people with congratulatory banners and signs, and what really stuck out was the number of young people who had followed his journey.

Building on that inspiration has turned into Barrington Irving's mission in life. He started by challenging kids from some of Miami's failing high schools to build a plane from scratch, which he would then pilot. In late 2014, Irving will also be taking to the skies again with a flying classroom.

He says that children from across the nation and around the world will be able to interact with him as he conducts experiments that they choose and help monitor. He's hoping he will be able to get more students excited about the STEM fields.

"We want to be the best, but we're afraid to challenge our kids to the be the best." That's something that Irving is hoping to change one flight at a time.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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