“Lucrative drone industry” wasn’t a phrase junior Nick Bellof expected to hear.
Sophomore Michael Nieves hadn’t considered all the science behind military vehicles. Brothers Ryan and Colin Young, freshman and sophomore, never thought about the companies crafting helicopter components.
About 1,400 Fort Mill High School students got another form of higher education Tuesday when the Celebrate Freedom Foundation and U.S. Army recruiters partnered to show science, technology, engineering and math in action – complete with an AH-1 Cobra Attack helicopter fly-in.
The Celebrate Freedom Foundation brings STEM lessons to schools with volunteer air and aeronautic experts’ showing students options in advanced manufacturing. Chad Allen, STEM coordinator for the Fort Mill school district, said the Tuesday morning program put faces to the growing emphasis on STEM learning.
“Just to expose them to these possibilities,” he said. “Let them know this is real world, this is concrete.”
Career and technology students rotated through a series of displays before the larger student body, more than 2,000 students, turned up for the helicopter landing. Assistant Principal Holly Logan said the idea behind all the festivities wasn’t rocket science, even if the presentations Tuesday quite nearly were.
“Bringing attention to STEM careers,” she said. “Each station focuses on a different topic related to the military, drones, manufacturing tools, the fly-in zone.”
Drone expert Russell David told students he isn’t against their going to traditional colleges, as career and technology students represent a wide range of potential college and career paths. He even worked with some young people who went to college on their own dime, thanks to drones.
“The money is absolutely off the chain,” David said, explaining how federal regulators took time to figure out the industry before finally certifying companies for a variety of drone uses. “Now we have all these companies that have licenses to fly, but no pilots to fly them.”
Real estate and farming are major industries relying on drone technology, David said. Pilots can video properties or even herd sheep, with some drone tasks commanding up to $500 an hour.
“It gives everybody the opportunity to do things they weren’t able to do before,” David said.
Several presenters Tuesday focused where they knew students would listen — the pay. Army pilot Jack Lovelady detailed the parts making up his 1,800 horsepower helicopter. He also talked of mortgages, cell phone bills, insurance and other common costs students would have to pay after they leave school. Costs quickly adding up to more than minimum wage jobs might afford.
Meanwhile, aeronautics manufacturing jobs are in demand, Lovelady said, at several times more pay every hour.
“Those are the $25- to $50-an-hour jobs,” he said. “South Carolina is trying to bring back the manufacturing jobs.”
Several students, like Bellof, came away with new ideas about how science and math classes relate to possibilities after high school.
“The unmanned airplanes surprised me,” he said. “It’s kind of new. I never really thought about it as an industry or a career.”
Others gained appreciation for how engineering works in the military, and paths forward service might offer.
“Going into the military and getting free college, I didn’t know that,” Nieves said. “And then getting free housing.”
Volunteer Bob Day showed students something they guessed was a ray gun, or a prop from some science fiction movie. It was an aeronautic precision drill. He showed them high-paying jobs with companies stretching across the world, an almost limitless future once they leave the classroom.
Provided, he said, students put in the work inside it.
“Each class that you take, you’re putting money in your pocket,” he said. “There’s money out there.”