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Drone Programs: Western Arkansas Schools and Universities are Firsts

Unmanned aerial system programs in Western Arkansas prepare students for in-demand careers.

By Teree Caruthers on November 8, 2017

Fort Smith, AR
Fort Smith / Courtesy of U.S. Air National Guard/SrA Cody Martin

Unmanned aircraft may not have a human pilot aboard but they still need people to keep them in the air.

A study by the Association for Unmanned Vehicles Systems International found unmanned aerial systems, or drones, will generate more than 600 new jobs and $500 million in Arkansas over the next decade.

Thanks to the innovative efforts of secondary and higher education institutions in Western Arkansas, industry leaders can be confident that students are prepared to fill jobs in this high-growth area.

Innovation at Work

Both the Fort Smith Public Schools (FSPS) system and the University of Arkansas-Fort Smith (UAFS) have launched unmanned aerial systems programs. Fort Smith is home to the 188th Wing of the Arkansas Air National Guard, which specializes in remotely piloted aircraft, space focused targeting, and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.

“I looked at what the 188th Wing is doing and what Amazon and Walmart are doing, and I saw the drone program as an opportunity that could explode,” says Martin Mahan, executive director of Human Resource Services for Fort Smith Public Schools, who was instrumental in launching the program. “Industries such as utilities, real estate and construction and safety and service are also exploring the use of drones, so this could be a great career path for our students … The sky’s the limit.”

FSPS was awarded a $100,000 grant from the Arkansas Career and Technical Education program to establish the program in the district’s two high schools. The district also equipped ninth grade engineering and technology program teachers with a drone and training, so students are introduced to unmanned aerial systems as early as junior high school.

“Our students can walk across the stage as a certified UAS pilot and go to work as soon as they step off the stage or even while in high school,” Mahan says.

How Western Arkansas is Building a Highly Skilled Talent Pool

Piloting a Partnership

FSPS also partners with the University of Arkansas-Fort Smith, which launched its own UAS program, to train teachers. UAFS offers a non-credit course in UAS through the Center for Business and Professional Development. Students who complete the course and pass the necessary Federal Aviation Administration exams receive a license to become a commercial pilot of unmanned aircraft. UAFS collaborated with the 188th Wing and companies enrGies and Mag Aerospace to offer the course.

“We’re developing more coursework to implement a full non-credit program of study that incorporates operations, maintenance, regulations, data collection, data analytics and other areas of study that go along with the uses of unmanned vehicles,” says Ken Warden, dean of the College of Applied Science and Technology at UAFS. “Our approach is not to address one industry, but to address how this technology can be utilized across many industries and offer coursework that is transferable and has multiple industry applications. We want to become a seal of approval that’s recognized around the region and nation.”

Discover Why Living in Western Arkansas Means High Quality of Life

Forging Career Paths

The drone program is just one example of how the education community works with businesses to keep a talent pipeline flowing in the region.

The Crawford County Adult Education Center, for example, partners with companies including Lumber One, Crawford Construction, Harold Hamm Construction and Elite Roofing to give adult and high school students hands-on crafts skills training. During the semester, students are taught the National Center for Construction Education Research‘s (NCCER) core curriculum. On top of classroom instruction, students are exposed to hands-on learning with tools and given a weekly opportunity to listen to business and industry speakers from the community.

Both UAFS and the Fort Smith Public Schools district meet with industry leaders to ensure their curricula are addressing the skills needs of regional businesses.

“When we meet, I’ll ask the question, ‘Tell us about emerging technologies in the business world. Tell us about equipment, emerging opportunities that we need to be preparing students for.’ And we get some very valuable information from our partners,” Mahan says. “We want to be even better at getting real-time information from the business world about how to change career paths for students to meet the pace of the changing job market.”

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