Students in Decatur and Athens schools learning drone technology

May 8—Students often complain that their teachers drone on and on, but that's not an issue for local third graders who are learning math and programming skills by operating drones.

Stevi Price, executive director of the Decatur City Schools Foundation, said she secured a grant for the school district from 3M Co. in November 2022 for $7,865. The funds provided 44 drones and drone obstacles.

Price said students use coding to program some of the drones.

"We started third grade drone clubs in our elementary schools to increase those coding skills and to learn more innovatively and creatively," Price said. "Also, careers in aviation and drone technology are on the rise."

Last week, all third grade students in Decatur City Schools competed in the district's first drone competition in the Decatur High gymnasium. The students were placed into two groups and flew their drones through three obstacle courses.

The first course consisted of the drones flying in between four chairs while the second course involved the drones flying through four hoops. In the final course, drones flew through one hoop, around a "skyscraper," and had to successfully land on a mini helicopter launch pad.

Several students at Austinville Elementary said this was their first time operating a drone.

"It was hard to keep it in the air because it kept falling down," said Gilberto Recinos. "I found there is a button on the controller to help make it go higher."

Jordan Marks said practicing for the competition was easy but he felt a little anxious competing.

"In practice, it was just us and we didn't have to worry about crashing into people so this is different," Marks said.

Julian Harris Elementary placed first in the competition, followed by Leon Sheffield Magnet School in second place, Eastwood Elementary in third place, and West Decatur Elementary in fourth place. There was a tie for fifth place between Banks-Caddell Elementary and Austinville Elementary.

With their fourth and fifth grade students learning robotics, DCS Technology Director Faith Plunkett said she spoke with Price about introducing drone technology to third grade students as a prerequisite to robotics.

"Fourth and fifth do robotics and Greenpower races and a lot of other STEM things so we wanted to give third grade something as well," Plunkett said.

Plunkett said third grade students learn how to measure distance and speed by using drones. She said learning how to operate drones at a young age will prepare them for the workforce they will eventually join.

"We're planting a seed, and drone technology is becoming more and more common, so the more we can expose our students the better," Plunkett said. "There's so many careers now where they are using drones and it's exploding around the country."

DCS gifted specialist Lindsay Sims said some of these students will continue to learn drone technology as they progress through middle and high school.

"Our gifted programs in grades 3 through 8, our JROTC programs, and our robotics programs in grades 6 and up all utilize drones in some way," Sims said. — Athens Renaissance School

Athens Renaissance School received a Tennessee Valley Authority STEM grant totaling $5,000 and purchased 10 drones last month for students in grades kindergarten through 12 to work with. Middle school science teacher Cassidy Ridgeway said she requested the grant because she wanted to teach them skills that were relevant to the workforce.

"I was trying to find a way to engage my students and interest them more and I know technology is a growing industry so I knew that using drones to teach them would engage them on very high levels," Ridgeway said.

Ridgeway received virtual reality headsets along with the drones.

Seventh grade students Reed Loertscher and Austin Penner are learning drone videography and have captured several aerial shots of their school and their classmates participating in events and have gathered footage for a small documentary about their volunteer work at a memory care facility.

"We also took some footage of the Donnell House on the hill over there and that turned out real good," Penner said.

Ridgeway said Clifton Kirby, drone pilot for the city of Athens, came to the school and discussed his career with the students and showed them his drone.

"I kind of want to do that one day," Loertscher said. "There's nothing like flying a drone. It's marvelous."

Ridgeway said her goal for future drone instruction is to incorporate math and science together so students can comprehend them better.

"My plans moving forward are to give them more math and science challenges through the drones," Ridgeway said. "A lot of our students coming in are scared of math and so it makes them a little skeptical of science."

wes.tomlinson@decaturdaily.com or 256-340-2442.