Through a Chicago high school's drone-flying program, teens expand their horizons

  • In Business
  • 2022-12-01 09:00:00Z
  • By Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO -- A'Janay Lurry considered the wind pattern and airport traffic flow before she made her descent onto the runway.

Only this runway was a dotted line of blue masking tape in a classroom at Chicago's Corliss High School, and the conditions of the air were instructions from her teacher.

Lurry is among participants in Corliss' new aviation program known as "pilot school." It gives students the chance to train for the Federal Aviation Administration's unmanned drone pilot certification exam, a license that permits flying drones for hire or any nonrecreational purpose.

Five students from Corliss - an early-college science, technology, engineering and math school in the Pullman neighborhood on Chicago's Far South Side - passed the two-hour, 60-question exam this year. That included Lurry, a senior who, according to Chicago Public Schools, became the first commercially licensed Black female drone pilot under 21.

"It was a good learning experience," Lurry said. "And flying the drones is kind of like video games, and I enjoy video games."

Corliss, Air Force Academy High School and Dunbar Vocational Career Academy are the three buildings in CPS that host aviation programs.

At Corliss, "pilot school" was specifically designed to focus on the drone-flying certification and is taught by someone with experience in air traffic control from his time in the Marine Corps, Brandon Parks.

So by the time senior Vincent Smith took the exam this November, he was ready. Though he said some questions stumped him, he scored an 88%, well above the 70% he needed to pass. "It was easier than I expected," he said.

A simple question

The entire program started with one student's curiosity, said Phylydia Hudson, Corliss' STEM program manager.

After participating in a previous summer program learning automotive detailing, the student asked Hudson, "Do we have drones?"

"Of course, I knew nothing about drones," Hudson said. But the questions prompted her to look online for resources on drone education and to learn about the licensing process. At first, Hudson thought she could learn the material and teach it. She quickly realized it was beyond her scope, with a curriculum loaded with science, math and weather.

When the students indicated an interest in sitting for the actual FAA licensing exam, Hudson thought it was a bit ambitious.

But Hudson said Parks, the former Marine on staff, told her he thought he could help the students prepare for the test, and pass it.

With donations from Corliss staff, as well as the school's corporate sponsors, the school covered the cost of the exam for the students, normally about $175. The instruction was also free to the students. Online test prep courses for the exam can cost $200.

Out of 12 students involved in the program, five sat for the exam, Hudson said. Just the fact that the students were willing to try was a win for her, she said. Then, defying her expectations, two students passed on the first try - the student who inspired it all and is now a college freshman, and senior Jonathan Turner.

Turner, who hopes to study computer engineering in college, joined the summer program because he didn't know much about drones. But he learned about the smart features and artificial intelligence technology continuing to develop with the machines.

With this license, his understanding of what he can do in the engineering field has expanded, he said. While he may start out flying the drones, he hopes eventually to work on the research and tech development side.

"This really gave me a lot of options in life, a lot of interesting options too," Turner said.

Hudson said that many opportunities available to youth on the North Side are outside the reach of students on the Far South Side. Now, after the success of the program, she hopes the school can become a hub for drone piloting and aviation.

"We see this as an emerging technology, and we are actually training them for things for jobs that don't even exist yet," she said. "And it all happened because of a student saying, 'Hey, can we have this?'"

Test prep

There isn't much actual drone flying required to get a license. But what is required is an ability to understand maps.

These maps are called sectional charts, and to the untrained eye, they might look like a bunch of concentric circles filled with numbers. Reading a sectional chart tells pilots where they can or cannot fly.

The FAA 107 exam curriculum is very similar to what an air traffic controller needs to know, Parks said.

"It's more important to know where you can fly, how high you can fly, how fast you can fly, versus flying the airplane," he said. "Flying the airplane is the simple skill."

While the exam doesn't test their ability to fly the drones, the students did get to pilot them a few times. But when the teens weren't flying the real thing, they had access in the Corliss classroom to two drone flight simulators that were built by teachers and students. Using the simulators allowed the students to log flight hours.

Studying for the exam took some juggling, Turner said. Over the summer, he balanced workouts for the basketball team with the program's hours. Some mornings, he got to Corliss at 7:30 a.m., an hour before the start of class, just to get extra time taking practice tests.

By the time Turner sat for the exam, his confidence was high, and he said he finished answering the questions in 40 minutes. After checking the time, he worried he finished too fast and started to second-guess his answers. But instead of giving into the doubt, he turned in the exam.

"I'm glad I didn't, because I probably would have failed," Turner said. "I knew that I knew what I was talking about."

To receive the license, test-takers have two tries, so this second chance was more of a do-or-die situation, Parks said. For one week at the beginning of November, Parks worked with three students each school day to prepare.

When Parks heard that the scores were in, "I think I probably had more anxiety than they had," he said of his students. But he was met with good news.

"I am so proud," Parks said.

'The day Corliss took flight'

To celebrate the students who passed, Corliss recently held a pinning ceremony in the school's auditorium. Alongside their families, each student received a golden pair of wings, fixed to matching black jackets.

At the ceremony, school counselor Cheryl Dyer encouraged other students to get involved with the program.

"You will remember this as being the day that Corliss ... took flight," Dyer said. "OK, I know my joke was corny."

At the ceremony, the students showed off the application of their skills with a drone-flying demonstration. Turner flew one drone out over the students seated before the stage.

"Do a flip!" one shouted.

"I can do something cooler," Turner said, before lifting up one hand. With his other hand controlling the drone, Turner moved his outstretched arm back and forth as the drone moved in sync, as if through a feat of telekinesis.

Lurry showcased her go-to trick, a quick 360-degree flip of the drone.

To the students gathered in the auditorium, Parks emphasized the work and intense concentration that goes into earning the license.

"You have to leave the games outside the door, and when you come in, it is business time only," Parks said. "But the rewards are countless, and I'm looking forward to you guys taking this field and just running with it."



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