Thursday, May 25, 2017

Can a $50 million drone port help revitalize Central Appalachian economy, retain young people?

Seth Hatfield, a sophomore in Belfry, Ky. said a drone port
close to home makes him hopeful for high-tech career options
after college (Education Week photo by Tim Webb)
Eastern Kentucky officials hope a planned $50 million complex where companies would design, build, and test drones and train people to operate them can revitalize a region hurt by the loss of coal jobs and persuade young people to stay, Denisa R. Superville reports for Education Week. Backers of the plan "say the region's high schools would provide a strong pipeline of students to learn high-tech skills."

"The project, known as USA Drone Port, is still in its conceptual phase and is expected to be built near Hazard, Ky," Superville writes. "It would include a 3,500-foot runway for drones and other small autonomous aircrafts, as well as an indoor-testing facility for year-round work. There would be space for engineers to build, test and perfect their inventions. Classroom space would be available for K-12 and college students to learn drone design and manufacturing, and have job-shadowing and mentoring opportunities. The facility would have aquatic ponds to test small underwater vehicles—the kinds that might be used in search and rescue missions."

Hazard, Ky. (Best Places map)
In January the region had an unemployment rate of 12.8 percent, twice the national average, Superville notes. But officials believe the facility could "create jobs in the burgeoning high-tech field and entice the region's brightest students back home after college with the promise of good jobs." 

Jeff Hawkins is the executive director of the Kentucky Valley Educational Cooperative, or KVEC—"a collective of 21 rural districts with 50,000 students that covers an area roughly the size of Connecticut." Hawkins told Superville, "We know [drone technology] is a growing area of employment opportunities, and the uses are only now being discovered. It's also a way for us to engage student-learners in a pathway that's focused on drone design, testing and use, that exposes them to high levels of mathematics, engineering and physics, etcetera."

Hawkins said Eastern Kentucky is a perfect location for the facility, Superville writes. He said "while districts in the region have large numbers of students living in poverty—81 percent qualify for free- or reduced-price meals—they post average four-year graduation rates that are higher than the state's average." The graduation rate in the KVEC area in 2016 was 94.9 percent, above the state average of 88.6 percent.

Paul Green, director of KVEC's Appalachian Technology Institute, said "KVEC districts have also been building a stronger foundation for high-tech education, deploying more than $30 million in federal grants to expand courses in computer programming, computer science, coding, aeronautics and aviation," Superville writes. He said, "prior to the recent expansion, only two of KVEC's 29 high schools offered computer science classes with coding, and only two had offerings related to aerospace engineering and aviation."

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