Life in the Box: Teachers in the Sky

Back before the world was surrounded by satellites, back before the internet, back before color television–can you even imagine that far back? There were phones and there was hot-and-cold running water, but there wasn’t television everywhere, especially in rural areas too far away from the signals of major cities.

It was the 1950s. The U.S. was celebrating the post-WWII growth of technology and the simultaneous baby boom. Hordes of children overflowed existing school classrooms and there weren’t enough teachers. New schools couldn’t be built fast enough. So, the time had come for teaching large groups at the same time—could new technology help TV reach more people?

School administrators took up the idea that one teacher, like a Spanish teacher, could reach children in many classrooms at once, using the television as a teleportation device. Non-Spanish teachers could corral the children in front of the TV and then hand out written materials and tests.

But television transmitters were expensive and only had small pools of reception. How could television reach beyond its earthly limits? Airplane transmitters! Yeah! That’s it.

Stratovision! In the 1940s Westinghouse had already created a system that produced a television signal that covered more turf—using a retractable transmitter that extended downward from the belly of an airplane. All that was needed was Federal Communications Commission (FCC) approval for station allocations and millions of dollars to start a new aerial network.

But in the 40s, the FCC had stopped allocations, and wouldn’t open them up until 1952. Early commercial broadcasters were already using VHF frequencies, which were available on most television sets. In 52, the FCC opened up the UHF frequencies, channels 14-83, and the upper numbers were reserved for non-commercial educational use.

Also in the early 1950s, Ford Foundation grants were helping educational television stations build towers and studios. Maybe towers in the sky could save money and reach more students! They had their work cut out for them—interesting teachers from different states to combine forces was quite a task. If you’ve ever worked in education, you should know that local control is key.

Ford put out the start-up grant of $7 million and gathered additional corporate funding. By 1958, the experiment in educational broadcasting by airplane had a name: MPATI–Midwest Program of Airborne Television Instruction. Later, jokingly referring to mathematics instruction, it was called “Pi in the Sky.”

From our modern perspective, this whole thing seems more than a little silly. Paying for jet fuel to move an airplane around to broadcast to schools? Costly and air-polluting!

But back then, it was taken seriously and the costs were not bad compared to trying to build television stations from the ground up. The airplane project could cover much of six Midwestern states: Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, Kentucky, and Ohio. More than 5 million school children could be given daily doses of television classes as part of their daily schedule with just one airborne tower.

By 1960, educators were attending workshops that instructed them how to incorporate the “lessons in the sky” into their down-to-earth curriculum.

Two DC-6 planes, donated by Purdue University, were outfitted with identical television master controls and tummy towers. More than 6 tons of equipment was on board, including a power generator to keep the tower on air. The planes determined a figure-eight shaped flying pattern to make sure the signal got to the right schools at the right times. Why two planes? One was the back-up in case the other one had technical difficulties.

Purdue University in Lafayette, Indiana was the command center, but the airport was in Montpelier, Indiana, 100 miles east.

Two dozen “television teachers” were selected to videotape the 15-20 minute classroom lectures.

Teachers didn’t ride in the planes, but rather taped their lectures in a studio in Columbus, Ohio (and possibly elsewhere). These tapes were broadcast to the airplanes, then played back from up above on a regular schedule.

The first test flights were reported on May 21, 1960, and that fall, the project began a full curriculum that included lessons for various ages of children–in topics like science, math, English and foreign languages, history, music, and U.S. government. Educational crop-dusting had begun.

It was an exciting adventure, and technically it worked pretty well. UHF reception, not standard on televisions of the times, was figured out in the classrooms. Students seemed to learn what was taught, at least as well as they did with a “live” teacher. And the grant went on for a few more years.

Many reasons were given for the eventual demise of sky TV, but it was mostly due to lack of interest in paying for the project by the school systems. Once the grants ended, they didn’t want to pick up the tab, especially since they knew they could get the signal for free if other schools paid. Without the buy-in, the project was doomed to end. 

After the planes were grounded, the videotaped lectures continued to be shared with “member” schools and were eventually enfolded into a Midwestern educational video library and distribution center in Nebraska.

The teacher in the sky experiment taught us something about how to use technology for education. It filled a gap. It sparks the imagination even now, to think that so many grown-ups would put in so much effort to make a world of ideas available to children. Pi in the sky, indeed.

Educational television continued to be produced around the country, and was broadcast on the more-and-more plentiful land-based towers. The Ford Foundation turned its generosity towards the new era of space travel, and by 1978, public television stations across the US were receiving educational programs from even higher up–from satellites, a system that continues to this day. 

Nancy Heather Brown is a retired, Emmy Award-winning television producer whose career has included interviewing, writing, narrating and editing for a span of four decades. Today, she enjoys learning new things and reflecting upon the creative process and life issues, both inside and outside the box. Her opinions are her own, and are not necessarily those of this web site.


Meet the MPATI teachers 

Chicago Television tells this history, too 

Ohio TV describes how teachers should have “normal mouth and teeth” and no distracting characteristics 


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