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Forging New Frontiers in Education: Students Learn Sky's The Limit

It’s not your granddad’s classroom. And it probably isn’t the kind of classroom you grew up in either.

In a leaner, meaner job market where competition spans well beyond international borders, education is spanning well beyond the classroom walls of our forefathers.

This bi-weekly series looks at how Duval County is working to prepare the next generation for what's ahead by forging new frontiers in education.

This week, WJCT revisits a new aerospace program in the district launched last month. 

High-Flying Lesson

On a recent morning, seventeen-year-old Trace Whitecotton gingerly glided his fingers across an iPad as a pizza-box size aircraft hovered in from of him.

“There’s a camera on bottom to calculate the height that it is up above,” he explains. “I can lift it and stabilize it with the camera on bottom still, move it left.”

It’s been about a month since Whitecotton began the Unmanned Aircraft Systems class at Terry Parker High School.  The class is part of Duval County’s newly launched dual-enrollment program with Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.

After piloting the partnership between the university and the district’s JROTC program at Paxon School for Advanced Studies in the fall, the district launched the program at 13 of its 21 high schools in January. Currently, about 1,200 students are enrolled in the program.

The dual-enrollment program costs the district about $74,000 and district officials plan to expand into some of the junior high schools by next year.

Over the next several months, students currently in the course will be tasked with programming an aircraft of their own. That means considering a request for proposal, a design, and the financing among other things, said Gail Cullum, director of the Embry-Riddle dual-enrollment program in Duval County.

“They completely design this unmanned aircraft,” she said.

Some of student teams will even go on to compete nationally in the Real World Design Challenge for a chance at $50,000 in scholarships.

But for some of the students, like 17-year-old Jose Munoz, it’s not the kind of program he believed he’d get a shot at.

“I thought my grades were going to be too low,” he said. “My GPA is that great for all the other dual-enrollment classes.”

This semester, he got a pleasant surprise.

Unlike many other dual-enrollment and advanced-placement courses, the aeronautical program doesn’t have a minimum GPA requirement, which opens the doors for more students to a STEM-based industry looking for many more workers.

And those students looking to pursue a full-time job in unmanned aircraft operation can expect a starting salary of about $60,000. Aerospace engineers can expect upwards of $65,000.

Opening students eyes to a new world of possibilities is the beauty of the program, said Larry Roziers, the district’s executive director of special programs at JROTC.

“They’re excited about the opportunities about drones and maybe becoming engineers, I mean we’re even talking about changing majors because of this program,” he said. “We have children who want to walk the campus of Embry-Riddle who never wanted to do that before.”

Come next fall, seventeen-year-old Johnathan Brackin will be walking the Embry-Riddle campus as a college freshmen. The senior was accepted in December and will receive a $2,000 a year scholarship through the dual-enrollment program.

But unlike many other students in the class, for Jonathan piloting has been a lifelong dream.

“I wanted to fly since I was four or five,” he said. “Whenever I would look up in the sky, every time I’d see a plane or helicopter my mom said my eyes would light up.”

Other students not quite ready or interested in attending Embry-Riddle right after high school can also opt to spend two years at a nearby local school, such as Florida State College at Jacksonville, St. Johns River State College or Daytona State College for two years and transfer to Embry-Riddle their junior year.

But the main objective of the program is to motivate students to enroll in any college, anywhere, and reach for the stars, Cullum said.

“They come in and then, we empower them into college,” she said.

Munoz, who is a junior this year, plans to stick with the program and pursue aviation in college.

“I will because I like this class. It interests me,” he said.

He said he plans to become an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle pilot someday--a gig that can eventually earn him six figures.

“Like in the long-run over $200,000 a year? That’s pretty great.”

You can follow Rhema Thompson on Twitter @RhemaThompson.

Rhema Thompson began her post at WJCT on a very cold day in January 2014 and left WJCT to join the team at The Florida Times Union in December 2014.