Get Schooled: York River Academy Students Fly High with Drones Workshop is your source for free news and information in Williamsburg, James City & York Counties.

York River Academy student James Griffin prepares to fly a drone with the help of James Messimer, an analyst with Newport News Public Library. (Elizabeth Hornsby/WYDaily)
York River Academy student James Griffin prepares to fly a drone with the help of James Messimer, an analyst with Newport News Public Library. (Elizabeth Hornsby/WYDaily)

A dozen students filed into the gym at York River Academy last week, lining up along the wall and taking in the obstacle course each one would shortly try to navigate – but this was not an ordinary gym class, nor was the obstacle course a test of fitness.

The group of students assembled were part of a special five-week workshop on drones, which was brought to them through a partnership with Newport News Public Library.

Library staff came up with the “UAVs 4 Me: Aerial Robotics Workshop” a little more than a year ago as a creative approach to meeting Virginia Technology Standards of Learning for high school students while also promoting literacy and workforce development.

A grant from Best Buy made the program a reality, and York River Academy was the fourth stop on the program’s tour of area public and private schools. The workshop has also made stops at Heritage High School’s STEM Academy, Hampton Roads Academy and Denbigh Aviation Academy. A trip to Walsingham Academy is slated for later this semester.

Alexandria Payne, the library’s digital services manager, has traveled to each of the participating schools and leads the workshop in conjunction with a partnering teacher at the school.

Each iteration of the program is structured similarly, with the first session or two being devoted to discussing the safety and legal restrictions that apply to operating drones, followed by a session for assembling the drones from the kits provided by Best Buy, a session for practicing operating the drones and finally the obstacle course competition.

Dave Cofer, a special education teacher, is responsible for helping bring UAVs 4 Me to York River. He described the program as a good fit for the school’s student body, which includes students with a particular interest in technology as well as students who thrive in non-traditional learning environments.

To get into to program, students had to submit an application and an essay explaining why they are interested in drones, in addition to agreeing to make up whatever regular classwork they would miss when pulled out of their normal fourth period class once a week to attend the workshop.

During the early sessions the group focused heavily on the SOLs for computer technology that the workshop’s curriculum highlights, including information on the safety and occupational instructions for operating the drones as well as the strict set of laws and regulations for flying them. Rules that are particularly important for drone enthusiasts who live near military bases or national parks, as many York River students do.

Another major component of the curriculum developed by Newport News Public Library is emphasizing the relevance of drones as an emerging career field. Payne cited search and rescue, agro-business and safety inspection of remote locations as just some of the possible applications of drones as the technology continues to advance.

“When they see the [instructional] videos of people climbing several hundred feet in the air to inspect a tower or something, it makes it more real to them how drones could really be used in that line of work,” Payne said.

This is a message that many of the students take to heart, with several participants speculating about how drone technology may intersect with particular fields of interest to them.

“What I’m really interested in is the medic drone,” said James Griffin, a freshman. “That could do a lot for society. They can fly in supplies or provide instructions to people on the ground.”

Once the students complete the safety and information portion of the program they move on to drone assembly. Each student gets their own kit, which will be linked to him for the duration of the workshop so he has the chance to fly the drone he put together with his own hands.

“Building the drone was the hardest part,” freshman Joshua Waldron said.

“One wrong move and it’s broken,” added Mark Trawitzki, a fellow freshman.

Mark Trawitzki and other students practice flying drones virtually before attempting the obstacle course. (Elizabeth Hornsby/WYDaily)
Mark Trawitzki and other students practice flying drones virtually before attempting the obstacle course. (Elizabeth Hornsby/WYDaily)

During their third session of the workshop, the students had their first opportunity to try their hands at actually flying the drones. One at a time they took turns practicing maneuvering around the obstacle course, which requires them to fly under a table, over a table, around a foam pole and finally to land on a target on the ground.

While waiting for their turn on the course, the students were able to practice flying a drone virtually on laptops with controllers like the one they will use to fly the drones hooked up to them.

Many students benefited from having had previous experience using similar controllers to play games on consoles like the Xbox One and Playstation 4.

“We tell them it’d be great to practice by playing their video games at home,” Payne said, laughing. “It really is an interesting tool to get through to them.”

Despite having experience with the equipment, almost all of the students found controlling the drone to be more challenging than they expected.

“It was harder than I thought it would be,” Waldron said. “The drone was a bit more touchy than I expected; it was very sensitive, but it was fun.”

The students have a strong incentive to make the most of their time practicing with the drones, as the person who is able to complete the obstacle course the fastest on the final day of the workshop wins a Samsung Galaxy tablet.

Despite the excitement of the possibility of winning the prize, the students were able to take a larger perspective about what they were getting out of the workshop and reflect on what role drones might play in their future.

Some, like Waldron, hope to buy their own drones and take up flying them as a hobby, while others are thinking more deeply about how they can parlay their interest in drones into a career.

“I think I want to be a software developer, and I want to make software for drones one day,” Trawitzki said. “It’d also take it up as a hobby in a heartbeat.”

Cofer is happy to see his students considering building and flying drones both recreationally and occupationally, and Payne is hopeful this program will continue catch the attention of students and open their eyes to the full potential of drone technology.

“The more students we get into thinking about drones, the better,” Payne said. “There are going to be a lot of jobs emerging.”