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Launching a new way of learning: Drones at PWMS

Prairie Wind Middle School eighth grade student Tim Fritz flies a minidrone as part of his Computer Applications Class. The kids were able to attach a little 'pilot' to their drones, if they wanted to. Marie Johnson/FOCUS1 / 5
The eighth grade Computer Applications Class at the middle school launched their new minidrones for the first time last Wednesday. Pictured is Stephanie Dickerson with her drone. Marie Johnson/FOCUS2 / 5
Student Aaron Burr laughs while attempting to make his minidrone do flips. Marie Johnson/FOCUS3 / 5
Student Lily DeBoer had fun trying to make her minidrone launch, land and do tricks in the air. Marie Johnson/FOCUS4 / 5
Rich McCrady, of Wings Flight Training in Perham, sets up his commercial drone before leading a demo flight for students outside Prairie Wind Middle School last Wednesday. McCrady recently donated 17 minidrones to the school's Computer Applications Class. Marie Johnson/FOCUS5 / 5

The Prairie Wind Middle School cafeteria was buzzing with the sound of 68 tiny propellers all whirling at once last Wednesday, as eighth grade Computer Applications students launched their new minidrones for the first time.

Kids in the class controlled the drones’ lift-offs, landings, flights and tricks with their iPads. Some students were able to make the drones hover, rise and fall in a straight vertical line, swoop through the air, glide low along the ground and even do mid-air flips.

In all, there were 17 minidrones darting through the cafeteria for a solid 15 minutes (until their batteries needed recharging), sometimes just missing each other -- or students -- as they whizzed across the room. Each drone has its own name, such as Batship, SWAT and Windy.

There were some close calls and a couple minor crash-landings, but overall the class’s maiden voyage was a success.

Students were laughing the whole time. Each student had his or her own minidrone to fly, and enjoyed some individual experimentation, but at the same time the kids were all interacting with and learning from each other to figure out how to make the drones work.

“The kids are just awesome,” said Deanna Kovash, the school’s technology integrationist. “They were so fired up for this.”

Ducking from drones as they flew overhead, Sue Jones, the Computer Applications Class instructor, said, “These took a little bit of a sense of adventure. It’s exciting and nerve-wracking and fun.”

While Jones’ morning eighth grade class got to do the first-flight honors, every seventh and eighth grade student at the school is taking part in the drone unit. The drones are being used as part of a STEM initiative (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) to help teach the kids computer coding.

The drones -- Parrot MiniDrones -- come with an iPad app called FreeFlight, which allows users to preprogram lift-offs, flight paths, landings and more. While Wednesday’s initial flight was mostly for fun and also to get the kids used to flying their drones manually, Jones said the next step is to have them pre-program, or code, their drones to fly on their own.

The drones were a donation from Rich McCrady, of Wings Flight Training in Perham. McCrady visited the middle school Wednesday to witness the initial launch and talk to students about aviation and the practical uses of drones out in the real world.

He also brought along his own commercial drone for a flight demonstration outside the school. More powerful than the minidrones, the commercial drone can fly as fast as 25 mph and as high as 19,000 feet. The kids stared up at it in awe as it flew over the school.

“This is fun,” McCrady said of flying drones. “I fly, and this is just another type of flying. It’s a toy, but it has a significant number of uses.”

Camera-equipped drones are frequently used in agriculture, for example, to monitor crops, herds and irrigation systems, he said. They’re also used for border patrol, military operations, and even real estate work.

McCrady told the students that it’s important for them to have first-hand experience with things like drones and other state-of-the-art technologies in order to be prepared for the jobs of the future. The use of unmanned aircraft is becoming more popular, he said, and there will be plentiful employment opportunities for workers who have the skills, intellect and dexterity to operate them.

In addition to the new drone unit, Jones’ students also spent a week learning to operate a Sphero. Spheros are app-controlled robotic balls that, like drones, offer kids a fun way to learn to code.

Jones and Kovash credited the middle school, the district’s 549 Foundation and supportive community members like McCrady with making unique learning opportunities such as these possible for students.

Marie Johnson

Marie Johnson joined the Perham Focus more than five years ago, and has since worn many hats as writer, editor and page designer. She lives in rural Frazee with her husband, Dan, their one-year-old son, Simon, and their yellow lab, Louisa. 

(218) 346-5900 x222
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