Flying drones might seem more like a hobby than a job, but so did computers when Bill Gates and Steve Jobs began toying with the idea of personal computers. Twenty students in the aeronautics class at the St. Vrain Valley Schools Innovation Center can speak to how drones are more than a pastime — this semester they have already fulfilled $20,000 worth of contracts pursuing their “hobby.” Over the last year, they have built military-grade drones for various companies, taken aerial photographs for real estate companies, tested concepts for drone delivery projects, and even designed a race track for a commercial drone racing company. “I don’t even think of it as a class,” said Noah Lennert, a 16-year-old junior at Niwot High School. “It’s just time that I get to do something that I love. Sitting down at a computer, designing (a drone) and a couple of weeks later seeing that thing fly and do its mission is a feeling that’s hard to explain because it’s one of the most rewarding feelings I’ve ever had.” After completing the class, all 20 students will be able to obtain a professional drone pilot license from the Federal Aviation Administration, but for many of the students, it’s just a start. With a flight certification under their belt and a better understanding of the mechanics of flight, several of the students will graduate to a design class next semester in which they will build drones from the ground up. “I came in last year not knowing anything,” said Avery Fails, an 18-year-old senior at Erie High School. “I was definitely more comfortable with the technical and math stuff, but this class has given me the real-life opportunity to see how everything works together, become familiar with all the programs and bridge that gap.”
After graduating in the spring, Fails will attend the University of Colorado Boulder Aerospace Engineering Sciences Program and hopes to eventually work for NASA.
“This class was a kind of the gateway for me to be like, ‘yes, this is what I want to do,'” she said.
For Jake Marshall , who created and now teaches the class, this was exactly why he pushed the Thompson School District, where he first began teaching a design class at Lucile Erwin Middle School, to start an after-school aeronautics program eight years ago.
“A lot of kids head to college saying ‘I want to go for the aerospace engineering program,’ but they’ve never flown anything, they’ve never designed anything, they never built anything,” he said while watching his students fly drones around the Innovation Center and produce three-dimensional digital models. “If I can provide these colleges with students that know how to fly, know FAA regulations, they’re going to be able to jump right into the hard-core engineering where they are actually programming the drones to accomplish tasks like search-and-rescue missions, drone delivery systems or even flying for the military.”
Today, after proving the concept of the course as an after-school program and later as a regular course, the aeronautics class at the Innovation Center has its own lab, several drones and its own runway.
“Are school districts introducing drone curriculum? Sure,” Marshall said. “To the extent of what we’re doing, where we have a certification piece at the end, a classroom specifically built for it and a flight field, I’d like to say we’re the only one.”