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Drone-building class is taking STEM learning to new heights

A new class at Apple Valley High School has students showing up well before the first bell rings and staying after the school day has ended. The Drone Construction, Modification and Flight course is the first of its kind in District 196 and students are eager to put their engineering skills to the test.

The class started last spring after more than two years of research and planning by instructor Chris Lee. As the coordinator of the school’s fabrication lab, Lee believed a drone course would give students another opportunity for hands-on learning, and that they would be popular. He was right. Both sections offered in the spring were full.

“I really pushed for this class because I see it as a natural fit with the science, technology, engineering and math components, and the fabrication lab,” Lee said. “That has really turned out to be true. We are using almost every machine in the lab as part of the course.”

For juniors Devin Martin and Quinlan Rowland, the class provided a learning space to explore their passion for technology. The two friends had built computers and other small electronics before, but they said this was the first time they built a drone. 

“I’ve always been interested in remote-controlled stuff and flying drones,” Quinlan said. “It’s cool that we get to work on this for a class. It’s just so different from any other class I’ve taken.”

As part of the course, students work in teams of two to build a pint-sized drone, much of which comes pre-assembled. Devin and Quinlan built a custom chasse for their drone using a 3-D printer in Apple Valley’s fab lab, and added a camera.

“I like the engineering aspect of this class,” Devin said. “And we’re learning how to keep detailed notes and a design record. Usually I just build things and then forget how I designed or built it. This class is making me a better engineer.”

The introductory drone class is just the beginning, Lee said. He plans to propose an advanced drone-building course this fall and spend the year researching and planning the curriculum. He hopes to have the course ready for the 2020-21 school year.

In the meantime, Lee said he would like to get more girls involved in the introductory class. As far as how drones will be used in the future, he said the possibilities for these students are wide open for drone-related careers in the future.

Last spring, Apple Valley hosted the state’s first-ever high school drone-racing tournament. St. Louis Park High School, which also has an introductory drone-building course, partnered with Apple Valley to put on the event. Teams from both schools competed against one another on an indoor course and put to the test their engineering, navigating and landing skills. The Eagles came out on top, with senior Andrew Martin taking home the championship title.

Apple Valley is the nationally award-winning high school in District 196’s magnet STEM pathway, which includes Cedar Park Elementary School of STEM and Echo Park Elementary School of Leadership, Engineering and Technology for pre-K to grade 5, and Valley Middle School of STEM for grades 6-8. All District 196 students can enroll at Apple Valley High through an intra-district transfer; space is available. Students who attend Valley Middle School of STEM are eligible for transportation to Apple Valley High School.