- Sponsorship -

Career options soar with high school’s new aeronautics program

Watch Annmarie Verwys practice on the flight simulator and Josie Kenward fly a drone at Grandville High School

Grandville — With three screens in front of her and her hands on the yoke to steer, Annmarie Verwys listened carefully as the flight simulator rattled off a series of instructions: Keep the wings level. Maintain altitude of 3000. Push the nose down just a few degrees.

Suddenly, a loud, high-pitched alarm sounded: a stall warning. Her “plane” was in danger.

Once she had pulled out of the stall, recovered the flight and finished the training exercise, the Grandville High School senior explained what was going on.

“I was working on descending to a certain altitude at a certain rate, and then maintaining that altitude,” Annmarie said. “That (stall warning) was because I did not push the throttle in enough, so the simulator didn’t detect that the throttle was giving (the plane) max power. And then it told me that I was falling out of the sky, so…” She trailed off, her expression a combination smile and grimace. 

Of course, Annmarie had never been in any danger; her feet remained firmly planted on the ground, in front of the flight simulator in teacher Chris Groenhout’s office. 

“This thing will teach you how to pull out of all sorts of problems if you get yourself into trouble,” she said, gesturing toward the simulator. “It’s not a life-or-death scenario — you’re just here in the classroom — so that’s kind of good to learn now, instead of in the air.”

Annmarie is one of 24 Grandville High School juniors and seniors enrolled this year in the school’s brand-new aeronautics program. Piloted by Groenhout — a teacher and instructional technology coach — it’s a two-semester class that teaches the basics of aviation and helps students work toward obtaining a private pilot or drone pilot license. 

From Aviation Basics to Foundational Knowledge

Groenhout planted the seeds for the program two years ago when he launched an independent study course on becoming a certified drone pilot. Last spring, the Board of Education approved his proposal to expand into a full aeronautics program, making Grandville one of only a handful of districts in the state to offer high school aviation classes.

“I like to bring new offerings to the students because it’s fun to see them light up when we’re applying it to real-life situations; there’s a specific application for every piece of knowledge that we pick up,” said Groenhout, who has his Part 107 drone license and is studying to earn his private pilot license. “(The class) gives students an opportunity to try something that’s directly related to a career field, and that automatically results in a higher level of engagement.

“Add in the fact that both of those career fields are in super-high demand, and you have a program that’s really relevant right now. Like, airlines are begging for pilots … and it’s the same thing with drones: the need for commercial drones is really taking off, with so many different industries now using them.” 

In the first semester, all students in the program follow a common curriculum to learn aviation basics such as navigation, runway signage, airport operations, air traffic control and reading aviation maps. They also study science and math concepts as they relate to aviation in terms of atmosphere, wind, temperature, speed and the weather’s effect on an aircraft. 

In the second semester, the class splits into two tracks and students decide if they want to work toward training for a pilot license or a drone license. Their end career goal might be neither of those options, but Groenhout said all 24 students are interested in “at least something tangential,” like the one who wants to become an air traffic controller and has chosen the pilot track to learn more about how airplanes work.

‘I’ve been interested in aeronautics for a really long time, but there’s not usually any outlets for that in school. I just think it’s amazing that we have the opportunity.’

— senior Annmarie Verwys

That tangential interest includes senior Josie Kenward, who wants to pursue a career in either aerospace engineering or astrophysics and has chosen the drone track. Her goal is to work with rovers or other unmanned aircraft in space, and says a foundational knowledge of drone operations will give her an advantage in college.

“It was surprising how much technology is in a drone … I felt like it was pretty perfect for me and I like that (this class) gives me an introduction to all the (aviation) basics,” Josie said. “When I went to look at colleges, they talked a lot about enterprise … these kinds of student-led engineering programs where you can basically build whatever you want. … So I think it’s really cool that I’m already starting out with some of that knowledge.”

Making Careers Accessible

Josie also hopes to take the test and earn her Part 107 drone certification, which would put her even further ahead: In many college programs, having a Part 107 or a private pilot’s license can be equivalent to some credit hours and would allow a student to skip some introductory courses. College scholarships are also available for students who pass a pilot program’s written exam. 

Grandville’s aeronautics classes put students in a good position to earn those licenses if they want, Groenhout said, but each student must pursue that option after class, independently, with the Federal Aviation Administration. That process involves additional training software, flight time in an actual plane with an instructor (for pilots) and sitting for the official FAA test — all of which cost money. 

But Groenhout is doing what he can to make that option accessible to the students for whom an aviation license would otherwise be out of reach. He’s worked to find donors to help sponsor students’ test fees and planned movie nights and other fundraisers to boost the program and help fund outside flight time. Even the high school’s FAA-certified flight simulator, on which students can build their required flight hours, was donated by Aviation Supplies & Academics via a connection through Superintendent Roger Bearup. 

“I know if I get somebody in a plane, they might really love it, and they might want to become a pilot or do something with aviation broadly,” Groenhout said. “But planes cost money, and for a lot of kids it’s just this nebulous, mysterious career they know nothing about, because it’s not accessible, and so they never develop an interest. 

“This program is something I wish I had access to when I was in high school … Now I get to watch (students) try and apply themselves to something that they’re excited to do. They’re getting exposure, they’re getting their questions answered and they’re coming away with great baseline knowledge that lots of places can work with.” 

Annmarie, who wants to get her private pilot’s license for hobby flying but plans to major in mechanical or aeronautical engineering, said the new program has made all the difference in her aviation dreams. She spoke excitedly of class opportunities like a behind-the-scenes tour of the Gerald R. Ford International Airport’s control tower, and expressed gratitude for Groenhout’s work to secure a donor for her FAA study material.

“This is a great class for figuring out what you want to do, whether that be taking it further or discovering that it’s not for you before you spend all that money,” the senior said. “I was really excited when I saw that this could be an option (at GHS), because I’ve been interested in aeronautics for a really long time but there’s not usually any outlets for that in school. 

“I just think it’s amazing that we have the opportunity. I don’t want this to be my job, but I really love it, and I think that I will definitely get into aviation sometime, at some point. I think it’s so great what (Groenhout) is doing, and I’m so excited that future students will get to do this, too.”

Read more from Grandville: 
Young readers follow the recipe for perfect pound cake
Playing with fire

- Sponsorship -
Beth Heinen Bell
Beth Heinen Bell
Beth Heinen Bell is associate editor, reporter and copy editor. She is an award-winning journalist who got her professional start as the education reporter for the Grand Haven Tribune. A Calvin University graduate and proud former Chimes editor, she later returned to Calvin to help manage its national writing festival. Beth has also written for The Grand Rapids Press 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


Related Articles

- Sponsorship -

Issues in Education

Making Headlines

- Sponsorship -


Maranda Where You Live WGVU