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Sky’s the limit

Grandville — For some Grandville High School students, the sky will literally be the limit when it comes to future career possibilities.

This spring, the school introduced a new option for an independent study course, called Unmanned Automated Systems Certification, that trains students on how to become certified drone pilots. The class also prepares them for the Federal Aviation Administration test that is required to earn a Part 107 drone license and operate drones commercially. 

“I think it’s a pretty cool course to take, because it’s completely different than taking, like, an average math class or a tech class,” said senior Ethan Chalker, one of five students to take the inaugural drone course. “I’ve taken a few of our tech classes, and they are really fun, but it’s nothing like this, whatsoever, because this is a lot more hands-on.” 

The class is the brainchild of instructional technology coach Chris Groenhout, who was studying to earn his private pilot’s license when he broke his arm. To keep his skills sharp while his arm healed, he began learning how to fly a drone and eventually earned his Part 107 license. 

“As I was doing that, it made me think that our students would really have a lot of fun with (a drone class), and there’s a lot of curricular tie-in,” Groenhout said. “Students need to get a technology credit, and we’re always trying to find a creative way to fill that – getting kids excited about learning is always a goal.”

Technology Coach Chris Groenhout and senior Ethan Chalker check out some features on the high school’s newest drone

The process of earning basic FAA certification – which means a person has learned how to legally and safely fly a drone recreationally – encompasses two different but important aspects of curriculum, Groenhout said. 

On one side, there’s the science aspect: Students in the independent study first learn how planes and drones fly by studying physics, aerodynamics, drag, lift and other concepts. They also learn some weather basics, like how to read a weather chart and how barometric changes affect flight. 

“(The class) really gets into detail about the science behind flight,” Groenhout said. “What makes a plane move left or right? What causes weather? There’s a lot of different fields of science that are integrated into this course.” 

On the other side, the course offers students an opportunity to take a deep dive into a drone-adjacent skill or career path that they’re interested in, like cinematography, robotics or programming. This is why Groenhout designed the class to be an independent study; he acts as the “drone liaison,” to help students with the actual drone operation, while teachers from other departments mentor the students in their related area of interest. 

The GHS tennis courts are seen in this drone image (courtesy Ethan Chalker)

‘A Completely Different Perspective’

In Ethan’s case, the senior already had a deep interest in photography and was in the yearbook class; he decided to take the independent study to explore drone photography and what it could mean for future job opportunities. While he didn’t have much prior drone experience, he could see the benefits of learning this skill set.

“I feel like it just kind of gives you more of an advantage against other (photographers), because it adds to what I am able to do,” he said. “With an actual camera, the highest you can go is how tall you are, but with (drone) certification I can go up to 400 (feet), or if I’m licensed I can get permission to do more. It’s also just a cool little skill to have.” 

The class gave Ethan a chance to learn the ropes using two different drones, both funded by grants from the Grandville Education Foundation. He started with one that’s smaller and more compact, but with fewer features, before trying the larger drone with more sensors, higher megapixels and greater programming capacity. 

‘They’re all learning the technology, and they’re learning the weather, but they’re learning it so that they can apply it to something that they want to do, and that makes learning relevant.’

– Instructional Technology Coach Chris Groenhout

Accustomed to making candid photos of people on the ground, Ethan quickly learned that aerial photography was a different skill entirely. For example, the angle of the sun affects the images differently, as does the height of the drone. He also needs to consider weather factors like wind and rain much differently, and take care to avoid restricted airspace. 

To document his drone photography, he set up a website that showcases some of his favorite shots from spots like Millennium Park or over the Grand River. 

“It’s a little trickier to get that perfect shot on (a drone), because of the fact of not being able to manually click the shutter and feel how it works,” he said. “I’ve learned that I prefer taking pictures straight down, like 90 degrees down. I like the feel of those kind of pictures more than, like, broad horizon shots —they feel more iconic to me.

“When you take a still photo, the job is to tell a story in your own way, so I like that creative side. And I think drone photography catches your eye a lot, because it’s a completely different perspective (from) what you see every day.”

Ethan said he has enjoyed the pace of the independent study, which he takes during first hour to give him a “peaceful, easy way to start the day.” He typically flies a drone once or twice a week and can choose how he wants to spend each day—whether that’s studying for the Part 107 license, reviewing and editing the pictures he’s already taken, researching drone photography techniques or consulting with a teacher. 

A view of the GHS football field from overhead (courtesy Ethan Chalker)

Set Up for Success

The independent study gives students the chance to earn their drone safety certification for recreational flying, but does not require that they take the test to earn their Part 107 license. A drone pilot needs that license to be able to fly drones commercially and earn money from drone-related work such as videos or photographs. There are also out-of-pocket costs associated with taking the test, which is why, Groenhout said, he prefers to leave the option for that next step up to each student. 

“We set you up for success like an AP class, where the goal is to get you ready to take that test,” Groenhout said. “So if you get through the class and you think, ‘maybe I’m going to make a career out of this and take more classes in college, or I’m applying to the Air Force and it would be good to have on the application,’ then you can choose to take the test. But if when you’re done you think it was fun, you appreciated the experience but you’re just going to fly recreationally, that’s great too.” 

Groenhout said he’s been thrilled with the interest in the drone program thus far, and hopes to expand it. 

“Just seeing that interest, that spark, that (students) want to learn, has been great,” he said. “They’re all learning the technology, and they’re learning the weather, but they’re learning it so that they can apply it to something that they want to do, and that makes learning relevant. 

“When I was a kid I struggled to find relevancy in high school, so I know that it’s difficult to be engaged in the learning if it isn’t relevant. These (independent-study students) are motivated to achieve some goal that they have, and that’s what makes all of this successful.”

Drone photography enables the photographer to capture images from hard-to-reach locations (courtesy Ethan Chalker)
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Beth Heinen Bell
Beth Heinen Bell is a reporter (covering Cedar Springs, Grandville, Lowell and Rockford), editor, copy editor and social media manager. She is an award-winning journalist who got her start as the education reporter for the Grand Haven Tribune. A Calvin University graduate, she later returned to Calvin to help manage its national writing festival. Beth has also written for The Grand Rapids Press, Fox 17 and several West Michigan businesses and nonprofits. She is fascinated by the nuances of language, loves to travel and has strong feelings about the Oxford comma. Read Beth's full bio

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