Closer Look

MMS drone training taking flight

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Christopher Hedden

On most days, a swarm of photography drones fills the brisk spring air of Macon Middle School (MMS) airspace. Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) teacher Bryan Wilkinson is leading a revolutionary educational exploration of all things STEM. Nationally, educators, legislators, and employers agree that STEM disciplines are the way towards future societal advancement. Drone Aviation encapsulates all four of these modern disciplines, proving to be more than just “fun” for students.

Drone 101

After the period bell rings, students wait eagerly for Wilkinson’s detailed and precise instruction. He ensures that students have responsibly prepared prior to the start of class. Pre-class preparation includes mapping out flight paths, charging batteries, syncing equipment, and checking for any mechanical issues within the drone.

STEM INSTRUCTOR Bryan Wilkinson reviews a pre-flight checklist with students prior to take off.

MMS drones range in size, price, and functionality. Currently, the STEM class has eight drones for student use. Most drones are of novice grade with high-quality cameras. All have a camera with video and audio capability. The drone usually requires a student duo to operate efficiently. One student uses their school-provided iPad to monitor the drone’s video footage, while a partner pilots with a remote control. Drones have a legal height limit of 120 meters (about 394 feet), preventing them from entering the airspace of any other aircraft. 

Drones are expected to be treated with the utmost respect and gratitude. Students seem to adhere to these principles, which is a characteristic of Wilkinson’s teaching style. 

How it works 

Groups of four or five students sit around circular tables to encourage group collaboration and socialization. In most standard class settings, students are filed away in separate desks with minimal opportunity to have an uninterrupted exchange of ideas. With free exchange of creative thought comes great expectations of high-quality production in projects. 

“In other classes, grades define the individual; our class rewards the student based on individual perseverance to polish their creation or product to a higher quality,” Wilkinson said.

STEM projects vary in length, objective, and principle of skills that are applied. Wilkinson focuses his curriculum on project-based learning and real-world science. This teaching style sharpens and teaches fundamental STEM principles, such as logical thinking, analytical observation, artistic creativity, and experiential learning. Valuable skills that are learned through class objectives include typical engineering, coding, programming, photography, videography, advanced technology operations, and career development. STEM equipment such as NASA-grade model rockets aid in the teaching of technical skills and STEM principles. 

Working with advanced technology is not an absent-minded process. 

STUDENTS RYLEE Rogers and Divine Wilkinson co-pilot “The Big Drone,” (pictured at the top of the story) which is the class’s most advanced drone.

“Patience with technological problems forces students to adjust to circumstances as well as to develop a quick and efficient method of problem solving,” said Wilkinson.

He also pointed out that students learn without borders when they assume the responsibility of fragile and valuable tools that aid their technological learning experience. 

Wilkinson believes in giving students the freedom to behave, create, and demonstrate responsibility. 

“People say kids have changed; they have not changed, but rather they are the same as they always have been. When I get in the classroom, I am teaching individuals and that’s how I treat them. I want the kids to be successful and I must be a promoter of their education rather than a gatekeeper of it. Everyone needs to feel like they have purpose,” he said.

Students Rylee Rogers and Divine Wilkinson (Bryan’s daughter) can co-pilot the class’s most advanced drone, aptly called “The Big Drone.” Rylee explained that it only took two days to learn to fly the complex and expensive drone. She also said that her favorite part of flying was “scoping the surrounding scenery.” 

Divine said, “It is cool to see my dad in his element.”

Other students, like Connor Ramey, prefer activities other than flying the drones. “I excel in coding, but I like mapping out flight paths as well as tracking the drone’s flight distance,” he said.  

Community Support

Local dentist, business owner, and current Franklin Chamber of Commerce President, Matt Corbin, DDS, donated a DJI Mavic Mini drone earlier this year to the MMS STEM class. Corbin is passionate about giving back to the community that raised him. The Franklin High School graduate also graduated dental school at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2015 and then spent the next four years serving as a dentist in the United States Air Force. 

Having been in the Air Force, Corbin is no stranger to unmanned aircraft and other current aviation technologies. 

 “Corbin Dental is always looking for a way to give back, which is a core value of our practice. We heard about the funding needs of MMS STEM, and I had a drone I was willing to part ways with, so I donated it. I donated the drone with the hope of providing aid to a kid’s career or skill development in the future. I know they [MMS STEM] have faced funding issues in the past, and I know how difficult it can be to track down at times – yet another reason to donate to such a meaningful program. It is nice to donate to a program that provides a valuable skillset for generations to come with ever-advancing technologies.” 

MMS STEM looks to grow its influence by proactively seeking grants and educational aid to provide technological fluency, soft skill development, and career exploration to future generations of Macon County students.