May 26 was a different type of graduation ceremony for a small group of high school students, one that saw them take the next step in working with a leading unmanned aerial vehicle company.

Northrop Grumman, a global aerospace and defense company, held a ceremony celebrating five students who participated in its High School Involvement Partnership Program, now in its second year. The company offers the program throughout the school year, to help generate an interest in students for engineering. Wednesday’s ceremony saw them fly a drone they built from 3D printed parts.

“We really wanted to celebrate with the kids and all the people that make this possible, so they can really enjoy their time here at Northrop during the program,” said Mike Fridolfs, site director for Northrop Grumman at the Grand Sky drone technology park.

But the project wasn’t just about building a drone, which Fridolfs said is “easy.” It was about building a drone to achieve a task. When the company designs and builds new technology, the focus is on the mission. The HIP program is an introduction to students in real world problem solving.

Some of the students were tasked with making a drone that could carry payloads of various light weights and then fly through an obstacle course of sorts. There were a few bumps over the school year in building the drone, some of the parts were hard to come by, and the flight controller shorted out in front of a group of engineers during a test flight. But HIP participant Broden Diederich, who is graduating from Red River High School on Sunday, didn’t let it get to him.

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“This project taught us a lot about the engineering process,” Diederich said. “Projects like this aren’t supposed to work as planned on the first try. Learning from our mistakes and improving upon what we had was a great experience, and once again showed us on a smaller scale what an engineer goes through.”

In Diederich’s case, the HIP program did exactly what it was supposed to -- kindle an interest in engineering. He will be attending the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities next year, where he’ll study aerospace engineering, but not before he, and the other HIP students enter a summer internship program with Northrop Grumman. There they will take on different responsibilities that suit their individual interests, whether that be engineering drones, software coding or even business.

“It all depends on what their field is,” Fridolfs said.

Jakob Stevenson, a Central High School student who is also set to graduate on Sunday, was Diederich’s partner on building the drone. Like Diederich, he’ll be attending university, only he’ll be going to UND to study mechanical engineering with an emphasis in aerospace. He said he is looking forward to the summer program, and wants to work with other interns running simulations. The HIP program, he said, helped his ideas about a future career coalesce.

“I already had a rough idea, but this definitely solidified what I wanted to do,” Stevenson said.

Gannon Brooks still has one more year to go, before graduating from Red River. He’s not entirely sure if he wants to go into engineering -- nothing unusual for a teenager he said -- but the experience of learning about the company and its projects was an eye opener. He’ll participate in the HIP program again next year.

“Even if I don't pursue something in engineering, I build a great background for everything and I think that's really good,” Brooks said.

The HIP program, summer internship program and events like Engineers Week -- aimed at elementary and middle school students -- serve multiple purposes for Northrop Grumman. They not only allow the company to put down roots in communities where their facilities are located, but they get students interested in a potential career. And when the time is right, the company wants them to come back where it all started.

What starts out with building mousetrap cars in elementary school, extends through high school, and into university, which could result in a paid internship and ultimately, a job offer.

“That’s the goal,” Fridolfs said. “We need to start engaging the younger and younger generation for engineering.”

Diederich said his experiences working with Northrop Grumman “directly fueled” the direction he wants to take in college. The HIP program and working with the company’s engineers laid the foundation for his interest in engineering, and he said his passion for aerial vehicles and space only grew during the program.

“The Northrop program is probably the biggest piece of my high school experience for me moving forward,” Diederich said. “The ability to work with actual engineers in their environment and gain experience, is unlike anything else I have done.”