It’s a chilly Tuesday morning in December at Walnut Springs Elementary, and the school library is buzzing.
Not with gossip or unruly chatter or the burned-off grounds of coffee for teachers, but actual buzzing.
It could be the windup of angry bees on the attack, but it’s actually the sound coming from a small, lit-up drone device hovering in front of a group of students.
Marisa Vickery, facilitator of learning and innovation at Walnut Springs, has just asked the students, who range in age from 9 to 11, “Did anyone know that Miss Vickery had Jedi powers?”
Then she demonstrated by giving flight to a DJI Spark, a mini drone that measures about five and a half inches across. It rose to four feet above the ground, its propellers spinning it into place as the students watched.
“This drone has sensors,” Vickery explained over the buzzing, “it recognizes me. Right now, we’re going to do hand signals.”
And like a charmer with a snake, Vickery makes the drone move, turn and take a group selfie of the students (or a “Dronie” in this case), and when the demonstration is over, land perfectly on her outstretched hand.
The students burst into applause as if they’ve just seen the greatest magic trick ever performed.
“Is that like ‘Star Wars?’” Vickery asks, smiling. “Does that just magically work? People program it. People who use computer science and coding.”
Welcome to drone school.
From building to commanding drones
Five years ago, Vickery was looking for a project to take part in as part of Hour of Code, a global event meant to demystify computer science for students. As she sought out parents who knew about programming, she found Dennis Baldwin, a software engineer who had a daughter in her class.
Baldwin agreed to help what was then called the Tech Team. He already had a few years of experience building and flying drones, and offered to help the students make their own.
“We 3-D printed a drone frame, I designed it, and we showed the students how to build it,” Baldwin said. “It was incredibly fun and rewarding to build them, but the first thing kids say is they want to take photos with it. Adding a camera to a little DIY drone is no small feat.”
Cameras on a homemade drone aren’t set up for image stabilization and it turned out to be a lot less effort to use off-the-shelf drones that already have hardware, such as a gimbal, which is a standard feature in many consumer drones.
With the help of grants, the team began using DJI drones and Baldwin shifted his attention from building.
“I took my love of software and creating as well as my passion to teach kids how to fly drones and program them,” he said. “That’s the genesis of DroneBlocks.”
Vickery helped create curriculum with Baldwin that would show students how to program using a free app he created that can pre-program a drone’s flight. The emerging drone program would also teach students about drone safety and rules, how flight actually works, and how drones can be used in areas such as agriculture, search and rescue, and real estate industries.
“We give the students these challenges and take them sequentially through programming concepts,” Baldwin said.
He said Vickery was a quick learner and embraced the STEM education possibilites that drones could provide.
“She is not intimidated to just throw herself into something,” he said. “She’s been an early adopter and is not afraid to fail and learn something new and struggle through it.”
Vickery said that for fourth- and fifth-graders, the drones are an exciting adventure.
“You just turn the drone on and you have their attention,” she said.
But Baldwin said the drones aren’t just fun toys; they can be used to teach students critical skills that could help down the road.
“I believe this field is ripe to explode and these students are going to grow up around the technology and ultimately have careers in these fields,” he said.
The big dronie
Back in the library, Vickery is taking 19 students through a primer on how drones function in high wind (short answer: not great, but they can stabilize well in 14-15 mile-per-hour wind), and how GPS satelites help drones navigate from waypoint to waypoint.
Students pair up with iPads and open up Baldin’s “DroneBlocks” software and get to work, using drag-and-drop menus to build a plan for a DJI Phantom drone they’ll soon be flying outside.
“This is the challenge I’m going to give you,” Vickery tells the students. “We’re going to program to go up in the air, turn around and face us. We’re going to yaw, we’re going to have the camera face us, we’re going to take a picture of ourselves and then land.”
She adds, “And then you’ll have a picture to keep forever and ever.”
Along the way, she explain terminology such as “Yaw” (basically rotating the drone on its axis), “Pitch” (facing up or down, such as pointing a camera downward while up in the air) and safety concepts, such as not flying a drone anywhere near other aircraft.
A 9-year-old student named Marcos Loyola gets the honor of having his programming used to fly the DJI Phantom, and soon it’s time to go outside into the yard in front of the elementary school.
In about 14-mph wind, Vickery places the Phantom a safe distance away and walks back toward the line of students. With a push from Marcos of an iPad button, the drone takes off as the students watch.
“WHOOOO!” goes Marcos.
The drone wobbles slightly, but quickly self-corrects and hovers perfectly still, its loud buzzing cutting across the cool air. “That’s awesome!” another student cries.
The drone, as programmed, turns. It rises higher in the air, adjusts its camera, and snaps a photo. Then it lands as the students cheer.
Then they go back inside, hugging themselves in their hoodies and heavy jackets, and it’s another Tuesday at school.
The drone program that has been spreading through Dripping Springs ISD has not gone unnoticed. Vickery and Baldwin have been working with the drone company DJI. Three students attended the New York World Maker Faire and gave a presentation similar to the school dronie in front of hundreds of conference attendees.
Another presentation was given to teachers at the International Society for Technology in Education Conference and Vickery has plans to work with the U.S. Army and to teach chlidren in China about drones in 2018.
She says she’s trying to teach programming concepts to the students, but also trying to open their eyes to the possibilites of technology that didn’t exist just a decade or two ago.
Vickery says her father assisted in rescue efforts after the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks, and when discussing the drone program with one of his grandsons, told her, “If we had had something as simple as a drone that could take pictures (of the scene from above), we probably could have helped a lot of people.”
Cover photo: Students at Walnut Springs Elementary in Dripping Springs pose for a photo taken by a drone as they receive hands-on education on programming and flying drones Tuesday, December 5, 2017. They've using drones to take photos, create art and learn about security and coding through instructor Marisa Vickery, Facilitator of Learning and Innovation at the school. Ralph Barrera / AMERICAN-STATESMAN