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Drone Designers Soar with New Skills
Tuesday, December 17, 2019


It’s one of the world’s fastest growing technologies, collecting snot samples from whales for scientific research, taking medical supplies to war-torn areas and even being involved in search and rescue missions.

Now, drones are emerging for entertainment purposes, clothed as jellyfish and disco balls to dance amidst fireworks or complementing concert tours of such artists as Metallica, Celine Dion and Cirque du Soleil.

On Friday several Wood River Middle School students treated their classmates to a drone performance choreographed to Christmas music.

Twenty-six seventh-graders in the school’s Leadership course have spent the past month in a Drone Designers pilot program offered by PCS Edventures, a STEM education company based in Boise.

The students learned to code the drones to perform in synchronicity to the music. And they had tutorials from a costume designer who outfits drones for entertainment shows. She taught them how to  design simple costumes for their drones, taking into consideration how the weight of the costumes and their aerodynamics would affect the drones’ ability to fly.

The Tello drones do not have GPS sensors, which made the students' work more challenging as they learned to code the drones to fly autonomously using an app called DroneBlocks.

“It was cool to try new technology,” said student Freya Colvill.

The program was introduced to the seventh-graders by Erika Liebel, a Spanish teacher at the school until she became a curriculum designer for PCS Edventures.

Liebel taught the students what drone performances are, from performances staged at the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea, to Lady Gaga’s Super Bowl halftime show to Cirque du Soleil’s Broadway show “Paramour.”

She taught them lighting principles following engineering design practices. And she taught them how to synchronize six drones to the music, using a GPS locator to keep the drones from crashing into one another.

“Drone designing is a new field. We exposed the kids to all the career choices that might be out there for them by having them rotate through all the different roles from coding to choreography,” she said. “I think they really enjoyed learning about engineering, basic coding and even aerodynamics, which challenged them with science to figure out things like how long the drones could stay in the air.”

One of the lessons focused on neurological conditions—the kids had to listen to music and draw what they were hearing. Then they applied that to choreographing a dance.

 “The kids learned that politics isn’t the only type of leadership. They learned that there are other forms of leadership, as well,” Liebel added. “These are important lessons.”

Finally, the moment came when the students staged their drone performance at a winter dance held in the school cafeteria. Not everything worked perfectly, but the kids were enthused about their experience.

“It was fun testing the drones,” said Joselyn Mosqueda. “Every once in a while, one would crash into the wall, and that was pretty bad. But then we got a chance to figure out how to stop that from happening.”

One of the most magical aspects for the youngsters was the opportunity to launch the drones from their hands in their roles as safety officers.

“They loved that human interaction,” said Melanie Schrader, the students’ teacher.

Schrader said she hopes the pilot project can be extended to other classes and even other organizations outside the Blaine County School District. There has been talk, for instance, about a partnership with the Sun Valley Center for the Arts’ educational outreach and about a partnership with the Wood River Community YMCA, which offers a Power Scholars program every summer to keep kids from losing the skills they learn during school over the summer recess.

“This was cool in that the kids took real life material from drone designers and got a chance to explore these different roles,” she said. “In addition to learning advanced features like looping, it gave them a chance to explore skills sets that for jobs that never existed before. It showed the kids how they need to explore and test things and that it’s okay to fail sometimes as long as they’re willing to adapt and try something new.”

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