While their classmates toil away at such courses as pre-calculus and history, a small group of Newton County high schoolers is spending the afternoons flying agricultural drones over cornfields.
That's right: drones.
Once the province of the military, then the toys of tech-savvy early adopters, drones are an increasingly common tool for farmers.
With the help of a $454,000 grant from the Office of Gov. Mike Pence and the Newton County Council, South and North Newton high schools have each purchased drones and tractors to train students in precision farming, which uses data to maximize crop yields.
"We're kind of ahead of the game as far as compared to other programs," said Drake Babcock, who teaches the course. "Eventually, just like many things, it's going to be something that's going to trickle down to our secondary level."
At South Newton, students use two drones. One takes photos and videos of the fields. As one student puts it, it's the type of drone a real estate agent might use to photograph properties.
The second drone is more powerful, with tools specifically designed for agriculture. As it travels over fields, following a programmed GPS itinerary, it collects not only photos but infrared data on the fields.
Students and staff use the data to compile maps showing photosynthesis throughout the field — in other words, where crops are healthy and where they are weak.
"As the grower, we can adjust what we need to across the entire field based on that individual plant health," said Babcock, who began tracking plant health at the school's test plot this summer. "We learned that we've got some huge issues that we need to adjust and fix for next year.
"Just driving by and kind of looking at it, we thought that maybe half of our field that we have here was going to be productive and kind of give us a normal yield look. And after flying we found that probably about a third of our field is really gonna give us a normal yield that we're expecting."
If the information drones collect is analyzed effectively, farmers can precisely target herbicide and pesticide use, among other benefits, according to Mike Leasure, an aeronautical engineering technology professor at Purdue University. "(That) has a real positive effect on the environment, as well as their bottom line."
For small farmers, it may be a significant challenge to analyze data independently.
"There's a big step between taking the data or the pictures or the images ... and actually evaluating it for something that is useful to a farmer," he said.
The grant also paid for new tractors equipped with GPS guidance systems that allow them to traverse fields without drivers actively steering. The South Newton students in the course are spending the semester operating the tractor in rotating pairs, teaching each other how to drive.
One of the more experienced students is senior Kurt Vissering. He learned to operate automated tractors on his family farm, and now he's honing the skill at South Newton.
Even for Vissering, however, the drones are new. He can't think of any farmers who use them.
That may be good news. Although drones are growing in popularity, the Federal Aviation Administration does not license operators to use them commercially, according to Leasure.
"All commercial operations are banned," he said. "The FAA really sees anything beyond just doing it for entertainment and fun as commercial operations."
By the time these high schoolers are running or working farms for a living, however, the situation is likely to be different. The FAA plans to release guidelines for licensing commercial operators within the next 1 1/2 years, Leasure said.
Kathryn Weiss, a senior at South Newton, grew up on a farm, but the tractors, drones and field mapping of precision agriculture are still new for her.
"It's very fun. I've learned a lot from the beginning of the year," said Weiss, who hopes to study agriculture business management in college. "I'll more than likely end up living on a farm. ... I'm hoping it will help me out in the long run."