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This Anchorage high school is bringing drones into the classroom

  • Author: Tegan Hanlon
  • Updated: May 23, 2016
  • Published May 23, 2016

When Lee Butterfield was a high school student, he felt frustrated. What he learned inside of the classroom seemed two decades behind what was happening outside the classroom, in the real world, he said.

Now, as an educator, he can affect a change.

"The goal is to always be out front — cut these kids loose and put them in a place where they can grow," said Butterfield, a 34-year-old South High School teacher.

Butterfield's latest high-tech addition to an Anchorage classroom: unmanned aircraft systems, or drones.

He isn't just using the drones as examples in a class. Butterfield is working with Alaska Aerial Media, a production company, to craft an entire class around teaching students how to operate drones and preparing them for jobs in a growing, global commercial industry.

"It's beyond the cutting edge," Butterfield said of the new class. 

Recent South High graduate Jonah Hayes leads a preflight warmup for other members of his school’s Unmanned Aerial Systems pilot program on Thursday, May 20, 2016. The drone pilot training program will be offered as an elective for credit next year, the first for high school students in Alaska. (Loren Holmes / Alaska Dispatch News)

Last week, Butterfield wrapped up the after-school drone pilot program for the school year. The program started in the spring, to set the stage for next school year's for-credit drone class.

The class will be the first of its kind in the school district. And as far as Butterfield can tell, it's also the first of its kind at any high school in the state.

"There are people using drones as teaching tools, but they're not teaching drones," Butterfield said. "There are a lot of people using them to teach physics of flight, but none with the express purpose to prepare kids for jobs within the economy."

In next school year's class, students will learn how to fly drones. They will learn to use a 3D printer to make aircraft parts and how to use the aircraft for cinematic shots. They will learn about Federal Aviation Administration regulations, the physics of flight, air space and how to map flight paths.

Butterfield likened it to a cinematography class paired with flight school — but for drones instead of fixed-wing planes. 

About $15,000 was spent on equipment this spring. South High now owns five drones, and Butterfield expects to purchase more for the new class. He and Alaska Aerial Media donated their time to get the class started.

Ryan Marlow, one of Alaska Aerial Media's founders, graduated from Service High School in 2007 and said he wanted to give back to the school district. His team has shot footage for companies including Discovery Channel, Animal Planet and National Geographic.

Marlow said teaching students how to operate unmanned aircraft systems safely will give them an edge when they graduate.

"It's an instant career," Marlow said. "Unmanned systems are blowing up as far as the uses and the integration. Teaching the next generation of pilots is very important to us."

Recent South High graduate Ian Borowski flies a drone during a practice with the school’s Unmanned Aerial Systems pilot program on Thursday, May 20, 2016. The drone pilot training program will be offered as an elective for credit next year, the first for high school students in Alaska. (Loren Holmes / Alaska Dispatch News)

In Alaska, the use of drones continues to grow as regulations are developed.

The Alaska Center for Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration at the University of Alaska Fairbanks is one of six federally approved drone test sites. Michael Hatfield, associate director for science and education at the UAF center, said he sees drones as a major new technology, following a trajectory similar to cellphones and computers. At first people are wary and skeptical, but soon the technology will infiltrate everyday life.

"They're really coming into their own now," he said. "I think there's going to be an expectation that students coming out of our schools — high school, and even middle school — will have some sort of exposure and experience with drones."

Hatfield said his center has used drones to look at coastal erosion and do animal surveys. They have helped with search and rescues and pipeline monitoring. They went to Barrow to map sea ice.

For now, Marlow, Butterfield and their students are awaiting the release of Part 107 — FAA's proposed provisions for commercial-use drones.

The new rules are expected this summer, Butterfield said. One big change proposed is that people will no longer need a pilot's license to operate a commercial drone, though they will have to pass some other kind of test.

Butterfield said his class will prepare students to pass the FAA test. People can currently fly drones as a hobby without a license.

South High principal Kersten Johnson-Struempler said the drone-focused class fits into the school's media broadcast pathway, that also has classes about advertising, videography and broadcast journalism. In November, Butterfield talked with her about the new drone class, she said.

"At the time there was a lot of national press about illegal drones flying everywhere," she said. "The opportunity to train kids appropriately was interesting to me."

South High freshman Grayson Davey plots a flight path as part of an exercise with the school’s Unmanned Aerial Systems pilot program on Thursday, May 20, 2016. The drone pilot training program will be offered as an elective for credit next year, the first for high school students in Alaska. (Loren Holmes / Alaska Dispatch News)

The pilot program was held after school Tuesdays and Thursdays with some sessions on Saturdays. It typically attracted between eight and a dozen students, Butterfield said.

On Thursday, a group of teenage boys gathered in a South High classroom. Their last day of school for the year had ended, but they opted to stay. It was their last official drone class.

"I would like it to be every day," said Grayson Davey, a 14-year-old who just finished his freshman year. "All of the regulation information has been helpful. I would have been clueless that the 107 info was coming out."

Around 3 p.m., Davey and his peers had finished crafting a flight plan and practiced calling in a notice to airmen. On the wall next to the door, the class had established a sort of wall of shame — taping drone propellers that had broken off.

Butterfield said students went into the program knowing that if they broke a drone, they had to pay to fix it. In part, it's taught them responsibility. The crashes have also taught them lessons — like when you think you're going to crash your drone into a light pole, do not overcorrect.

Before the students went out to practice flying Thursday, they also went through a reminder exercise. They had to pretend to be drones. Their arms were propellers.

Alongside his students, Butterfield squatted on the ground in Converse sneakers, his jeans rolled at the ankles. Another student led the class. It was like a futuristic game of Simon Says.

"Going hot," the student said — the warning that they were preparing to take off.

"Throttle up," he said. They stood up.

"Landing gear up." They picked up their arms, their propellers.

Soon, the student drones were prepared to take off. They walked outside, carrying cases and backpacks, each holding a drone.

South High sophomores Olli Anderson, left, and Marshall Robinson attach props to their drone before a practice flight on Thursday, May 20, 2016. The school has an after-school drone pilot training program, which will be offered as an elective for credit next year, the first for high school students in Alaska. (Loren Holmes / Alaska Dispatch News)

Ian Borowski, an 18-year-old recent graduate who plans to attend the University of Alaska Fairbanks in the fall, said he always liked cinematography and had already bought a drone before the class started. He has a YouTube channel where he posts the video footage he shoots from the sky.

Next school year, Butterfield said he hopes to have students use drones to produce live video of the school's sporting events. The school has an advertising plan, and Butterfield said the goal is to make the classes self-sustaining.

On Thursday, Butterfield stood outside, coaching the students as drones buzzed through the air. He quizzed them and was quick to make jokes. He said he wants to create classes that students want to attend.

"Cheesy teacher moment: These kids are going to go out and do things bigger than I'll ever dream of accomplishing in my life," he said. "How do you not get jazzed about that?"

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