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Mitchell science teacher expands drone course with help from $5K grant

A drown flown by senior Nigel English, not pictured, moves through the cafeteria while junior Tyson Murtha, back, flies another drone. Science teacher Julie Olson recently brought in new drone curriculum for her students and thanks to a $5,000 grant, she will purchase several drones for students to learn to fly and build. (Matt Gade / Republic)1 / 4
Senior Jacob Parker solders a sound and light kit as part of an electronics class. Students have to take the electronics class before being able to take the drone curriculum class taught by Julie Olson. (Matt Gade / Republic)2 / 4
Senior Lukas Putnam puts together a kit quadcopter drone as part of a drone curriculum class by Julie Olson. Olson started the class in the fall of 2016. (Matt Gade / Republic)3 / 4
Senior Jacob Parker solders a sound and light kit as part of an electronics class. Students have to take the electronics class before being able to take the drone curriculum class taught by Julie Olson. (Matt Gade / Republic)4 / 4

A quiet buzzing sound filled the Mitchell Career and Technical Education Academy Thursday afternoon as drones flown by Julie Olson's students zipped through the air.

Two "Rolling Spider" drones glided through the large, open space controlled calmly by two students, while another student sat at a nearby table, trying to figure out issues with a different small drone.

Drones, or unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), are flown by an operator from the ground. And thanks to the $5,000 Kelly Lane Earth and Space Science Grant, Olson will be able to buy even more drones for her students at Second Chance High School. The grant was awarded to Olson two weeks ago by the South Dakota Space Grant Consortium during the joint conference of the state Science Teachers Association and the South Dakota Council of Teachers of Mathematics.

Olson, a science teacher with the Mitchell School District, already had two "build-it" drones, as she describes them, along with two "Rolling Spider" drones and a few more "toy drones."

With the grant money, she will buy two more build-it drones, which are kits assembled by students, along with 10 pre-built drones and a DJI Phantom drone that has a built-in camera sending images directly to the operator's mobile phone.

The additional drones came in perfect timing as Olson also has just integrated new drone curriculum into her classroom recently. Just before winter break for the district, Olson received the curriculum as well as two drones for her students.

So now, she has two students working on the curriculum, which is 16 units covering all aspects of drone technology. Called "Drone Theory and Design," her two students are steadily going through each unit — while Olson does her best to stay ahead.

"I learn a lot of stuff right along there with them," Olson said. "But a step ahead of them."

To obtain the curriculum, Olson wasn't required to obtain any licenses or certifications from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), as it was for educational purposes, Olson said.

"You just have to be a crazy science teacher," she said with a laugh. "And willing to try new things."

The curriculum has students study all FAA regulations, as well as how to build a drone. It also covers areas such as the fundamentals of flight, design and documentation.

The students takes quizzes, answer questions about safety and take several design challenges. These challenges could be as simple as building a tower as tall as they can in five minutes, that also holds four models.

It brings out the problem-solving skills in her students, Olson said, along with perseverance. And if something is wrong with the drone, the students can "work backwards," Olson said and fix the issue.

Olson also plans to use the drones to benefit other classes. The DJI Phantom drone, which sends higher-resolution images to the operator's phone, will be used for water testing projects, Olson said. With the drone, students can get some aerial photographs of the testing sites, helping to expand the project's research.

And it's not just for Second Chance High students. Olson has ordered two spider drones to give to the Middle School. The middle schoolers will have access to a shortened version of the drone curriculum called "Learn to Fly." This eight-unit courses is not as "full blown," Olson said, as the high school's curriculum, which is double the number of units.

But it's not all work and no play. Olson wants to create Mitchell's first-ever drone races. She doesn't have the details hammered out yet, but her plan is to develop a course for drones and their operators, such as going through a hula-hoop and other obstacles.

With her students and middle school students, Olson said it would be a fun time, and she may even open it up to the community and other people who own drones.

And as far as Olson knows, there aren't any other schools in the region — or even the state — that she is aware of that have drone curriculum.

Among her students, several are interested in studying similar areas at post secondary institutes. But for others, it's just fun.

"The students get to fly drones," Olson said. "It's just a lot of fun."