Given the digital age we live in, you may see drones regularly flying around Sumter in three to four years, and the licensed pilot of that drone could be a current ninth-grader at Crestwood High School.

That is the premise of a new curriculum – Drone Innovation Technologies – that started last month for high school freshmen at Crestwood and also describes what was on display Wednesday outside at the Oswego Road school.

To boost its STEM curriculum, Crestwood implemented a four-course drone certification program this semester, and 19 ninth-graders are taking part in the first class, or cohort, and leading the way on the new journey. STEM is an educational curriculum focused on the integration of science, technology, engineering and math.

The certified drone program is the first in Sumter School District and could expand in classes and also to other high schools in the future, according to school instructional staff.

The program falls under a multi-year federal grant program called GEAR UP that the local district qualifies for, and a Columbia-based drone training and services firm, AI Nautics, organizes and administers the curriculum.

The initial 16-week course, Introduction to Drones, meets for a one-hour class each week at the school. Wednesday was the students’ first day outside to practice flying the drones.

According to company co-founder Chris Williams, AI Nautics started drone programs in South Carolina schools in 2018 and to date has worked in 10 school districts and also at some colleges, including Sumter-based Morris College.

Sheila South is a new GEAR UP program college support specialist at Crestwood and previously worked as Morris’ director of career services and was there when AI Nautics administered a summer program on the campus, she said.

When she arrived at Crestwood, South began brainstorming new STEM opportunities for the high schoolers and remembered AI Nautics’ drone training program.

She connected fellow Crestwood GEAR UP program specialist Essie Sellers with Williams and the firm, “and the rest is history,” she said.

If teenage students stick with the program, by the end of 10th grade – at the age of 16 – they can take an exam to become a Federal Aviation Administration-certified drone pilot, according to AI Nautics and South.

The summer following their junior year, students can qualify for a paid internship with the firm and start getting experience and flying time with drones. As a senior, students would continue to get flying time experience in the program, South said.

After graduation, students could be considered highly qualified and certified pilots with a world of opportunities available to them.

Core drone skills in taking photographs and video are currently used in numerous business sectors to include public safety with search and rescue, business warehouse inventory control, cinematography, agriculture, real estate and insurance, among others, Williams said. And drones are expected to continue to grow in use in many ways, given artificial intelligence and data proliferation in today’s world.

Sumter School District Superintendent Penelope Martin-Knox agreed the program is good preparation for college, a career or a role in the military, noting the U.S. Air Force’s MQ-9 Reaper enterprise that has a home at Shaw Air Force Base.

As drone use expands, there is obviously the need for more qualified and licensed pilots, Williams said, as well as programmers, maintenance and support, technical writers and other positions.

With about 14 years of experience in K-12 education, South said Crestwood’s drone certification program is all about career awareness for the modern-day and future workforce, which will have global opportunities.

“Our industry and this world is going toward STEM,” she said. “So, we have to prepare our students for the change that society is going toward. It’s our job to prepare our students for the future, and what better ways than through our STEM programs?”

South added that drones are a relatively new concept and tool, and students buy into new trends.

Crestwood freshman Khalil Moody is a student in the new drone certification program and said he enrolled in the course to expand his future opportunities. He said he has always been into electronics and gadgets and did get a toy drone for his birthday when he turned 10.

Moody said he got excited when he learned he could become a licensed pilot at 16 and added that he enjoyed Wednesday’s flying time.

“It’s nice to be so young,” he said, “and have so many opportunities.”

Credit: The Sumter Item