Education Week - May 17, 2017 - 6
In Kentucky Coal Country, New Tactics to Stem 'Brain Drain'
Can a drone port on a strip-mined
mountaintop in Kentucky keep an
ambitious student like Seth Hatfield from leaving his economically
distressed hometown for good?
A co-op of rural school districts in
the region-home to a long-declining coal industry-is betting on it.
The districts and other backers of
constructing a $50 million complex
where companies would design, build,
and test drones and train people to
operate them, say the region's high
schools would provide a strong pipeline
of students to learn high-tech skills.
They hope to accomplish two feats
in a region where, at 12.8 percent,
the January unemployment rate
was more than twice the national
average: create jobs in the burgeoning high-tech field and entice the
region's brightest students back
home after college with the promise
of good jobs.
For Hatfield, a sophomore at Belfry High School in Pike County
whose passions are video games and
robots, it's a thrilling prospect.
"I feel like this is a great opportunity for me, and I feel really lucky
that all of this is happening in my
area, close to my hometown," said
Hatfield, 16, whose grandfather was
a coal miner.
The project, known as USA Drone
Port, is still in its conceptual phase
and is expected to be built near
Hazard, in southeastern Kentucky.
It would include a 3,500-foot runway
for drones and other small autonomous aircrafts, as well as an indoortesting facility for year-round work.
There would be space for engineers
to build, test, and perfect their inventions. Classroom space would
be available for K-12 and college
students to learn drone design and
manufacturing and have job-shadowing and mentoring opportunities. The facility would have aquatic
ponds to test small underwater
vehicles-the kinds that might be
used in search and rescue missions.
"We know [drone technology] is
a growing area of employment opportunities, and the uses are only
now being discovered," said Jeff
Hawkins, the executive director of
the Kentucky Valley Educational
Cooperative, or KVEC-a collective
of 21 rural districts with 50,000 students that covers an area roughly
the size of Connecticut.
"It's also a way for us to engage
student-learners in a pathway that's
focused on drone design, testing,
and use, that exposes them to high
levels of mathematics, engineering,
and physics, etcetera."
Hawkins believes the education
system is inextricably linked to the
region's economic future.
"Where the two intersect is the
edu-economy," he said. "That's the
sweet spot for us."
The project grew out of discussions about postsecondary opportunities and regional economic development between educators at KVEC
and officials from the state's aerospace industry, said Paul Green,
the director of KVEC's Appalachian
Photos by Tim Webb for Education Week
By Denisa R. Superville
FROM TOP: Seth Hatfield, a
Belfry, Ky., sophomore, flies
a drone. Prospects for a
drone port near Belfry make
him hopeful for high-tech
career options after college.
Teacher Haridas Chandran,
with students Autumn
Gibson and Hatfield, runs a
lab at Belfry High School
where students learn a
range of high-tech skills.
both the K-12 education system and
diversifies the economy, so that people can stay here and find gainful
employment and create a vibrancy
of life," Hawkins said.
Odds for Success?
The need for a facility for research
and development of drone technology emerged over and over, Green
said. The state has a growing aerospace industry and is second in the
country in the export of aerospace
products and parts, he said.
The southeastern Kentucky region has many features that make
it a prime location for such a project,
including thousands of acres of land
and open space far enough away
from population centers without
being too remote, Green said.
While districts in the region have
large numbers of students living in
poverty-81 percent qualify for freeor reduced-price meals-they post
average four-year graduation rates
that are higher than the state's average, Hawkins said. In 2016, KVEC's
graduation rate was 94.9 percent,
while Kentucky's statewide rate was
88.6 percent, Hawkins said. Steady
growth in the graduation rate has
been the result of expanding personalized learning, personalized professional development for educators,
and expanding curricular options,
particularly career tech-ed courses.
6 | EDUCATION WEEK | May 17, 2017 | www.edweek.org
The KVEC districts have also
been building a stronger foundation
for high-tech education, deploying
more than $30 million in federal
grants to expand courses in computer programming, computer science, coding, aeronautics, and aviation. Prior to the recent expansion,
only two of KVEC's 29 high schools
offered computer science classes
with coding, and only two had offerings related to aerospace engineering and aviation, Green said.
"Our programming is trying to
expose kids to these new things,"
Green said. "We are working to create potential economic opportunities with something like the drone
port, where industry may say, 'This
is a great training facility. This is a
great testing facility. It may behoove
us to move our research and development center to this location.' "
The drone port dovetails with
KVEC's efforts to prepare students
for jobs of the future and build multiple career pathways. This fall,
KVEC plans to offer a new pathway
in drone design and development. It
will also emphasize entrepreneurship and creativity.
"The unique thing for me is how
do we create an ecosystem that fuels
Revitalizing economically depressed regions is a tall order in
any setting where manufacturing and industry jobs have disappeared, said Harry J. Holzer, a
public policy professor at Georgetown University in Washington.
In many of those regions, residents who had the opportunity left
permanently. Many who stayed
behind have been out of the workforce for extended periods, often on
long-term disability, Holzer said.
And some of those areas are in the
throes of the opioid epidemic. The
eastern Kentucky region is home
to several counties with some of
the largest declines in life expectancy between 1980 and 2014, according to a recent report in JAMA
Internal Medicine, a drop driven
in part by poverty and lack of
healthcare access. The opioid and
prescription drug epidemic and an
exodus of younger people have also
played a role, Hawkins said.
But there are features in the region
that companies may find attractive,
such as cheaper land and lower taxes.
Building a skilled workforce might
also draw interest, and KVEC's partnership with a local community college and the region's relative proximity to Lexington, Ky., also "raise the
odds of success," he said.
University of Kentucky economist Christopher Bollinger expressed caution.
There are major challenges to luring tech firms to areas where the
labor force needed to support the industry does not yet exist, Bollinger
said. And a lack of big-city amenities to attract a start-up labor force
is also a barrier.
The new training for high-tech
jobs in coding, engineering and
aviation and entrepreneurship
should continue whether the drone
port gets built, he said. That kind
of training and education can spur
entrepreneurial activity and lead to
"Fundamentally, I am always skeptical of 'if you build it they will come' "
he said. "But I am not skeptical that
education is the key to economic
growth. We see this all the time."
The project is not intended to be
exclusive to drone development, said
Bart Massey, who works at Hazard
Community and Technical College
and will serve as the manager for the
project. Robotics will also be central,
and the complex's final form will be
driven by industry needs, he said.
So far, the board that would
manage the drone port has received support from local county
governments. A landowner has
agreed to donate the property for
the airstrip. Other property owners have also expressed their intention to donate more land if needed,
Massey said. The organizers will
need to raise private money, but
they also hope to get financial assistance from the Appalachian
Regional Commission and grants
through the federal Abandoned
Mine Land Reclamation Program,
Massey said. The first phase is estimated to cost $15 million.
The entire project would take
between 24 and 36 months to complete, but educators hope that students and businesses would be able
to use portions of the facility as soon
as fall 2018, Massey said.
Belfry High School students like
Hatfield and his classmate Autumn
Gibson see real promise to pursue
a career close to home. Gibson, 15,
whose early exposure to air shows
fostered a love for airplanes, signed
up for an early-morning aeronautic
class when it was first offered. This
semester, she and some classmates
built a wind tunnel from scratch.
"I thought it was a great opportunity to get a head start on a possible
career," said Gibson, who plans to be
an aviation technician and return to
work at the regional airport.
Hatfield has already demonstrated a talent with drones. He recently won KVEC's first-ever drone
contest in which contestants had to
pilot a drone in an enclosed space
without crashing it.
The planned drone port gives him
hope that his family's Appalachian
roots-which run deep in southeastern Kentucky-can remain.
"By the time I complete college,"
he said, "there is bound to be something for me back home."