Schoolcraft High offers class in working drones

Instructor Josh Willoughby continually comes back to help students understand aviation rules and symbols.

By Kathy Oswalt-Forsythe

This fall, Schoolcraft High School’s list of course offerings adds a class: Drones 101, taught by high school science and math teacher Josh Willoughby.

Willoughby is in his 20th year with Schoolcraft Community Schools. He graduated from Michigan Technological University with a civil engineering degree and a teaching certificate in science and math. He also holds a master’s degree in educational leadership from Western Michigan University.

Willoughby’s imagination was triggered in 2022 when he learned there were federal funds available for after-school and summer programs. He dreamed of ways he could engage more students. Then Principal Matt Dailey encouraged his staff to present ideas or create plans to take advantage of the funding. Dailey also shared information about a New York-based drone education company, SkyOp. This piqued Willoughby’s interest. After some research about the growth of drones in the workplace, he determined this could be a great opportunity for students in Schoolcraft.

Dailey agrees. “It is incredible to think about the application drones have in our current work world.  What started as a luxury item and a fancy way to advertise real estate, drone technology is used in a variety of ways, including use for construction and building inspection, for emergency first responders, and – among other applications – to monitor agriculture and land conservation.”

After gaining administrative approval, Willoughby received 24 hours of online (Zoom) training and eight hours of in-person, hands-on training at the SkyOp facility in central New York. He then took and passed the Federal Aviation Adminstration Part 107 test to become a commercial drone pilot.

Federal grant dollars provided the initial funding for the purchase of drones and the 2023 summer camp drone class. The district plans to continue offering after-school and summer camps to engage students and to foster excitement about possible STEM – science, technology, engineering, and math – careers.

Willougby says “there was a lot of student interest in the first summer camp class, even with very little advertising.” Then the class was added to course offerings for the 2023-2024 school year, and Willoughby is pleased with the student response and potential for growth in the future. “Currently, we have eight students in our drone class. Numerous other students wish they could be here, but their class schedule wouldn’t allow it. I anticipate a full class of 15 students next year.”

During the writer’s October visit to Willoughby’s classroom, he greeted each student by name and quickly engaged them in a warm-up activity. He projected a map on the whiteboard and provided map coordinates—latitude and longitude. The students’ task was to identify the precise location on the map.

After students had solved the problem and marked individual answers on the board, Willougby slowly walked his students through the thought process, continually asking students for clarification. He also described real-life situations where drones could be used and asked students to clarify rules of flight and the meaning of various map symbols.

Willoughby’s goals for the class are many: Students will learn to fly drones recreationally and commercially. They will learn the rules that the FAA has for U.S. airspace and how drones must operate within it. His warm-up activity reinforced those goals, and most students are showing beginning mastery with some support.

Next, using tablet devices, students worked in teams to fly their drones to designated rescue scenarios in the school’s performing arts center. Students were very confident and excited about this activity, and again, Willougby continued to explain real-life scenarios where drones could be used and reviewed flying rules and clarified questions.

When returning to the classroom, students revisited their first activity and used coordinates to locate a specific point on a projected map. And after the review and classroom activity, several more students demonstrated mastery of the task.

Willoughby says that in addition to learning to fly drones and learning the rules for drone flight, students will use numerous science concepts—force and motion—and math calculation skills in the class. The class is an elective STEM class, and because of the complex concepts, enrolled students can earn a math credit towards graduation.

Willoughby stresses real life applications of the skills they will learn. “By the end of this course, students will be prepared to take the Part 107 test to become a drone pilot. With this, students could begin to make money using a drone.”

Like Willoughby, Dailey sees the connection and value in this type of course. “We are fortunate to complement our curricular offerings with a hands-on and real-world relevant course, equipping our kids to earn drone piloting licenses. As we consider what the world looks like our kids are about to enter, we want to match courses that inspire future careers.  Our drone class is one such instance of equipping and engaging our kids for future possibilities.”

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