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Columbia Business Monthly

Aviation High Schools Take Wing

Nov 30, 2017 09:49AM ● By Emily Stevenson
By John Jeter

In one of Tamyas Ward’s first aerospace-related projects, he programmed a 3D printer to make a keychain. That may not appear to have anything to do with building an airplane, but the assignment could hold the key to what the 16-year-old hopes will be a career in the U.S. military.

“I like making things fly and learning about different aircraft,” says the 11th-grader, who’s enrolled in one of South Carolina’s inaugural classes of an aerospace curriculum for high schools. “I’ve always had an interest, I’ve flown drones, but I’m not a master at it.”

That may change for the young Maryland native, who’s taking advantage of the rigorous new program at Sumter Career and Technology Center, which serves three high schools in the Sumter School District. SCTC is one of six high schools throughout the state, including schools in Pickens, Greenwood, Cordova, and Beaufort, to adopt the curriculum. 

“I lit the first match when I made a big public dare when I said, ‘We’re the fastest-growing state in aviation, and we don’t have an aerospace high school. What’s wrong with that picture?’” says Steve Townes, president and CEO of Greenville-based Ranger Aerospace.

Townes is also a board member of SC Aerospace, an industry cluster that gets support from the state Department of Commerce and the South Carolina Council on Competitiveness. 

The latter reports that the state’s $19 billion aerospace industry has generated $5.7 billion in exports, a 50-percent increase over 2016. The sector’s 400-plus civilian aviation companies, with more than 17,100 employees, has created 100,000 jobs, the council says.

“Employment in the aerospace cluster is growing at a rate eight times higher than the state’s average,” says state schools Superintendent Molly Spearman, “and private-sector aerospace employees are compensated an average of over $70,000 per year. Ensuring students are aware of and prepared for jobs and careers within the industry is critical.”

But where are such highly trained workers going to come from? Leaders statewide hope this school year serves as a taxiway for that workforce development to take off. Officials say as many as 15 high schools are considering adopting the aerospace curriculum.

The program comes from the Southern Regional Education Board, a 16-state alliance based in Atlanta. SREB’s eight other advanced-career courses focus on advanced manufacturing, business infomatics, and global logistics, among others; North Carolina, Ohio, Delaware, West Virginia, and Alabama have also adopted them. 

“South Carolina made that a priority,” Gene Bottoms, SREB’s senior vice president, says of the aerospace specialty. “In America, we have all these jobs that can’t be filled out there, and the problem is you can’t fill them with the same 30 percent of people you’ve been filling them with before.”

Hence the Tamyas Wards of the world.

“We had to have intellectually demanding career pathways that really help students see opportunities out there in the real world, to help them make sense out of it,” Bottoms says. “We have declining male participation in the workforce, and every Southern state is struggling to fill the jobs available.”

SREB provided a $50,000 grant to each participating school, with money from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Bottoms says. The South Carolina Department of Education kicked in another $50,000 per school; costs for state-of-the-art equipment and teacher training are mostly covered.

Jill Winter, assistant principal and Career and Technical Education curriculum specialist at SCTC, says teacher training, which lasts up to two weeks in Georgia and Ohio, costs $3,200 per teacher—just for registration.

“It’s worth it,” she says. “The curriculum is rigorous. It is math-based because of all the programming and whatnot, but it really challenges the kids to think beyond their normal comfort zone.”

Students also work in teams, says Lakia Gaines, SCTC’s aerospace instructor, whose crew of seven students collaborates to build kites, drones, and, most challenging, a prototype pilot seat. 

While flying a kite sounds like child’s play, Gaines, who has a masters degree in transportation planning, says the project demands much more than that. Students must collect, analyze, and report data, including information about weather conditions and kite aerodynamics; each brings his or her strengths.

“One student proficient in English does all the research for the group and brings it back, while one’s really good with math,” she says.

Teams also compete: whose kite can get as high as 50 or 100 feet in the fastest time.

Teachers are teammates, too. Says Gaines: “The students challenge me to do more.”

“The entire point of this project-based curriculum is for students to have hands-on equipment that they’d actually be using,” says Adrianne Beasley, the Council on Competitiveness’ director of Aerospace Initiatives. “Our commitment is to get industry out there and helping these schools.”

Boeing, the aerospace behemoth with 7,500 workers in Charleston, says it’s not involved in the program, but adds: “Our plans are to continue our existing educational programs that include opportunities for students to visit us on site, in-class volunteerism for our team, and special visits to schools across the state by some of our company experts to highlight opportunities and careers at Boeing.”

While the company did lay off 102 South Carolina workers this summer, “that doesn’t mean we don’t foresee a strong, ongoing presence for Boeing here,” Boeing emailed in response to questions. “There will be an ongoing need for a pipeline of qualified workers at Boeing in South Carolina and that is, in part, what motivates our interest in strong schools and rich educational experiences.” 

Even though Boeing’s not participating in the new curriculum—yet—Winter says she’s working to build partnerships between SCTC, local aerospace companies, the military, and other stakeholders. 

“I can’t name specifics yet, one step at a time,” she says of would-be partners, “but hopefully our students will go to engineering positions throughout the state. We’re trying to grow our own.”

To that, Spearman adds, with four military aviation facilities in South Carolina and such companies as Boeing, Lockheed Martin, GE, and GKN, “we do not foresee these jobs or our workers leaving.”