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Teachers take on Drone Designer pilot program statewide

Education

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POCATELLO — At three locations across the state, teachers spent the week taking on the role of student, learning to design and program drone performances.

The Drone Designer pilot program is the brainchild of Erika Liebel, a former teacher at Wood River Middle School in Wood River Valley and current Curriculum Coordinator at PCS Edventures. Through the 12-day program, which Liebel said can be stretched to fill an entire semester, students will learn to program and customize a drone and learn to safely choreograph and code a performance.

“It’s a very collaborative process, which is really powerful for the kids,” Liebel told EastIdahoNews.com.

Liebel was given free rein, she said, to design a STEAM — science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics — program to engage students between fourth and eighth grade. The only catch was, it had to involve drones.

In her search of drone performances, Liebel found that many of the notable shows, including Cirque du Soleil and Metallica concerts among others, were produced by the same company — Verity Studios. So she contacted the company for support, and was able to produce a workbook that followed the paths of each member of their production team.

“We made the whole program so that the kids can shadow what each member of this production team does,” she said. “In the designer notebook, we show the real-life people they’re learning to emulate.”

Funding for the program comes from the Idaho STEM Action Center, which provided the teachers in attendance with drones, as well as other instruction materials, to take back to their classrooms.

Drone Designer pilot program
Courtesy Otto Kitsinger and the Idaho STEM Action Center

Classroom teachers, Liebel explained, are constantly seeking out and applying for grant opportunities. The Idaho STEM Center has given teachers statewide an opportunity to use this hands-on program to explore a high-demand vocational skill.

“The whole curriculum program … and the equipment that they’re getting, through this grant with the STEM Action Center, helps kids to explore these STEAM careers,” she said. “STEM Action Center is so key for access so that we can bring these quality programs and get this interest, and fill these gaps in education and in the workforce.”

The program’s “final exam” is a fully choreographed drone performance based on a flying sequence from a movie. Three groups attending the Pocatello training chose sequences from “Harry Potter,” “Wonder Woman” and “Top Gun.”

Debra Johnson, from team “Top Gun,” believes that this program is just the sort of thing to get her students at Teton Middle School in Driggs interested in pursuing careers in STEM.

“A hook for these kids is seeing the drone maneuver in the air and have a costume on it,” she said. “We always have the assemblies at the first part of the school year. Having a drone fly through there, they’d be so about it.”

Local teachers fly drones through the lobby at the Clarion Inn in Pocatello
Brandi Milliron (left), from West Minico Middle School in Paul, Catherine Sorensen (center), from Preston Jr. High School, and Debra Johnson, from Driggs Middle School, watch their drones during a rehearsal performance. | Kalama Hines, EastIdahoNews.com

Teachers taking part, like the majority of their students, came into the program with little to no knowledge of the skills needed — like coding, which is key in programming the performance. But they headed home the way the program is designed to leave its students.

“By this third day, we’re all, like, super-smart, techie drone people,” Johnson said.

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