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Drones start flying at Sunlake's new academy

LAND O'LAKES

Students lined the walls of the Sunlake High School commons as teacher Wendy Stanley placed the lightweight four-propeller drone on the floor and backed away.

Others leaned out their classroom doors to get a closer look.

"Awesome!" they murmured as Stanley tapped her iPad screen and the drone lifted off and buzzed around the area.

More than a few students whipped out their phones to record the sight.

Such enthusiasm was expected — desired, actually — as the Pasco County school selected the unmanned aircraft systems course to introduce its new aerospace career academy in conjunction with Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.

In addition to having many civilian and military uses, the skills in the credit-bearing class also seem cool, providing the lure that the new program sought to attract teens. In the few weeks between announcing the new academy and starting it, the drone class brought 32 interested Sunlake students into the fold.

"I've always loved aviation ever since I was a little kid," said senior Kevin Soeder, who jumped at the chance to get a head start in the Embry-Riddle program, which also is debuting in several other Florida counties this year. "I just wanted to learn some new aviation stuff."

Stanley, a private aviation safety consultant and commercial pilot, said she also was excited to learn of the opportunities being made available at Sunlake.

"This is something that I've dreamed about, working with young men and women to get them into aerospace and aviation," she said.

So she decided to take the plunge into teaching, with plenty of support and training (not to mention a curriculum) from her alma mater. She kicked off the class with some history lessons, laying the groundwork for more detailed lessons including how to write a request for proposals, then design, develop and program a drone.

"We're building the life-skills foundations," Stanley said.

As the program develops, it will include four tracks of study, such as aviation and engineering. Students will be able to graduate with several Embry-Riddle credits, all at no cost to them.

The business community is lining up to partner with the school on this initiative, principal Steve Williams said. Starting in the fall, students from other schools will be able to enroll in the academy, he added, although school transportation will not be provided.

Even with its buzz, the program isn't for everyone.

Sophomore Bryant Aspedon said he didn't plan to stick with it.

"I thought we were going to be building a drone," he said. "I think it's cool. It's just not what I expected."

Sophomore Chyanna Spaulding, by contrast, welcomed the challenge.

"I just wanted to try something new, something different," she said. "I've always had an interest. When I heard about it, I was like, I've got to try it."

Spaulding wants to have a career in homeland security, and figured the aerospace courses could give her insights into one aspect of it.

"If I decide this is what I want to do, I can go into college with some of the courses knocked out," she said.

Matthew Andresen, also a sophomore, had enough experience racing remote control cars that Stanley felt comfortable letting him pilot the drone. He immediately had it doing flips and hovering close to classmates.

Hoping to become a mechanical engineer, Andresen said he knew the academy would be for him the minute he learned of it.

"I would have gone to a different school" if the district had placed the academy elsewhere, he said. "This is the class I was waiting for."

Stanley said the academy will offer more courses in the fall.

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at jsolochek@tampabay.com.

. Fast facts

Aeronautics at Sunlake High

Sunlake High School has joined with Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University to offer a career academy in aeronautics for Pasco County students.

More information is available on the high school's website about the partnership, bit.ly/sunlake-embry. The university has details about some of its other, more established high school programs on its website, erau.edu.

Drones start flying at Sunlake's new academy 01/21/14 [Last modified: Tuesday, January 21, 2014 7:12pm]

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