LAND O'LAKES — Unmanned aircraft soon could be zipping around the grounds of Sunlake High School.
The school plans to offer a course on drone technology in January as it launches an Aerospace Career Academy with Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.
The program is expected to offer college-level courses in engineering, pilot training and other areas aimed at preparing teens for careers in the hot aviation and aerospace professions. Eventually, students could graduate with credit for 10 university courses, on track for a degree and employment, along with their high school diplomas.
"The job opportunities out there are almost unbelievable for the students," said Leo Murphy, the Embry-Riddle associate professor who is helping Pasco County establish the program. "Ninety-five percent of our graduates are in the workforce or pursuing advanced degrees one year after graduating."
Seeing demand for its graduates growing, Embry-Riddle, which has a campus in Daytona Beach, sought funding from the Florida Legislature last spring to expand its career academy network. It already has a presence in several school districts, including Charlotte, Palm Beach and Okaloosa counties.
House Speaker Will Weatherford offered his support, "but I wanted Pasco to be one of those sites."
Murphy, who started Okaloosa's program before moving to the university, said Pasco County has the necessary ingredients for a strong program, including nearby aviation companies and airports.
"You want to get the students to the airports, see the jobs, let them speak to people in the industry," he said.
Those connections played into Pasco superintendent Kurt Browning's decision to place the career academy at Sunlake instead of Zephyrhills High, where it was initially considered. Browning noted the school's proximity to the Veterans Expressway and Tampa International Airport as key factors, along with its easier access to students from all over the county and its availability of open seats.
"We are going to look at a regional approach with Embry-Riddle," Browning added. "Having a relationship with Zephyrhills (High) and the city of Zephyrhills and the regional airport is still in the mix."
First things first, though. The program needs to get up and running. A contract that goes Tuesday to the Pasco County School Board indicates that the district will offer at least one introductory course in the spring semester. Murphy has recommended Unmanned Aircraft Systems.
He said it's one of the most exciting courses in the program, in which students get to plan missions and fly drones while also learning about how to build them. It's a fast-growing career, he added, noting that Embry-Riddle recently added a master's program in the field as more industries use the technology.
"I think it's really going to create some curiosity and excitement," said Rob Aguis, the district's director of career and technical education. "I think it's going to help us recruit students in the future."
The academy is to be open to students from all over the county, not just Sunlake students. Aguis said the details are not set because the deal is so new. A teacher hasn't even been selected.
But planning is moving quickly, principal Steve Williams said. "We want to make sure we roll it out properly."
Murphy expected the academy to begin its first full year with at least six courses, including the high school-level Introduction to Aerospace and the college-level Spatial Reasoning, in which students are taught to visualize movement in three dimensions.
That course appears to have strong correlation to success in engineering, Murphy said, noting that it soon will be required for all Embry-Riddle students.
He figured the academy would draw three types of students: those who are passionate about aviation, those who are interested but unsure, and those seeking a path to free college credits.
"We try and show them all how exciting it is in aerospace," Murphy said.
The school district's cost to begin implementing the academy is $1,800.
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at [email protected], (813) 909-4614 or on Twitter @jeffsolochek. For more education news visit the Gradebook at tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.