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Eyes to the sky: Valley Middle School elective gives students a taste of UAS technology

John Stempinski, tech and engineering teacher at Valley Middle School, assists eighth-grader Bill Rassier in a UAS class this week. photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald1 / 3
A microquad UAS flies a course through John Stempinski's UAS class at Valley Middle School this week. photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald2 / 3
From left: Adin Staquet, Max Johnson, Quinn Roehl and Carmello Suarez work with microquad UAS this week at Valley Middle School. photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald3 / 3

About a dozen eighth graders gathered around four small quadcopters in a Valley Middle School classroom Thursday afternoon.

Four students grabbed the drones' remote controls and began piloting them on a dizzying course around the room. As the small machines made their way through hoops attached to the ceiling, they hit a few stumbling blocks. Some crashed into walls or desks. Some narrowly missed students' heads.

"It's controlled chaos," joked John Stempinski, tech and engineering teacher at Valley Middle School.

Over the past few weeks, this has been the scene every Thursday and Friday at the school's newest course offering on UAS technology. Now in its first year, the class is aimed at giving students a taste of drone technology with a side helping of real-life technical skills.

The small quadcopters come preassembled, but the students — all boys — also built a larger drone on their own. They haven't had a chance to fly that one yet, but they will when the weather improves, Stempinski said.

The students are learning a little bit of coding, too.

"They have to learn about setting the motors, and then coding for LED lights," he said. "There is some code in the GPS. You can actually set the way you want it to fly that way, things like that. It's not as deep as I would like, but it's a good start."

Stempinski ended up teaching the course due to his own outside interest in flying quads, he said. Once school administration greenlighted the elective, Stempinski set to work on gathering equipment and creating a curriculum. He reached out to a few U.S. companies to get some materials for the course, he said.

"We dove in headfirst and started finding stuff," Stempinski said. "About a month before the school year, they're like, 'yeah, we're going to do it.' ... So I did a lot of research and found some things."

Before the students ever tried operating drones on their own, they spent the first quarter of the school year using simulations to train.

At Valley, Stempinski teaches two UAS courses. Each has an enrollment that hovers around 12, he said.

The UAS class is part of a redesign of middle school elective courses approved by the Grand Forks School Board last year. Other new course offerings include classes on computer apps, animation and other non-conventional electives.

Max Johnson, a student in the UAS course, said he had never flown drones before the class and enrolled "just to try something different." So far, the experience has been fun, he said.

Brendan Heath, another student, has always found the concept of drones "relatively interesting," he said.

After piloting a quadcopter around the classroom, student Adin Staquet took a break to watch other students fly. The eighth grader said he's looking forward to the end of the year, when the students will get a chance to fly a larger drone outdoors.

Staquet said he took the course because his dad works in aviation and UAS. So, he wanted to explore the field, too.

"I thought that maybe it might be something that I'd like to get into," he said. "I quite enjoy it. It just gets dizzy after a while."

Dan Niepow

Niepow covers social and community issues for the Grand Forks Herald. Before joining the paper, he worked as a magazine writer and editor. A graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, he currently resides over the river in East Grand Forks, Minn. To reach Niepow with story ideas, send him an email at dniepow@gfherald.com or call him at (701) 780-1110. Follow him on Twitter @dniep.

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