High School STEM Curriculum Teaches Fundamentals of Drone Delivery

Throughout the country, schools are rapidly advancing STEM curricula to integrate classroom science, technology, engineering and mathematics with hands-on opportunities for students to put those skills into practice. Drones have become a fun and practical tool for such STEM activities allowing students to build, program and learn to fly unmanned aerial vehicles. At Great Oak High School in Temecula, C.A., students and instructors have truly elevated the integration of drones into their STEM curricula by forming the Great Oak High School Air Force Junior ROTC Drone Squadron. While the program began with simple consumer level drones in 2014, instructors sought opportunities to expand the program’s capabilities with more commercial-grade capabilities, including the addition of an A2Z Drone Delivery drone winch integrated with its DJI Matrice 600.

Under the direction of William Jones, George Macias and Scott Barberides, retired US Air Force instructors, students at Great Oak High School have a unique opportunity to study aerospace science as part of their STEM curriculum. Both licensed FAA Part 107 pilots, Macias and Barberides teach the principles and theory of aerospace science in the traditional classroom setting, but what sets the Great Oak program apart is the hands-on learning students enjoy before and after school hours.

When the Great Oak drone program began, it consisted of a dedicated class of six students. In the passing years, the program has expanded to service dozens of students with several having secured their Part 107 licenses as well. With funding through the Air Force Junior ROTC program, the program allows students to start their hands-on learning by building and programming their own RubiQ drones. As their aerospace skills improve, the students also have access to numerous camera-equipped DJI Phantom and Mavic UAVs, as well as Skydio platforms. These consumer platforms enable students to learn to fly the drones and conduct aerial videography for school events. Students also shoot video of school football games, graduation ceremonies, etc.

With the program growing rapidly, Jones, Macias and Barberides also sought to expand the capabilities of the Drone Squadron to allow students to conduct more advanced missions. While the existing fleet of drones offered an amazing opportunity for students to apply their classroom lessons in the field, drones have grown beyond merely photography tools. Expanding the Squadron’s capabilities with a more advanced drone not only allowed students to practice new applications for their STEM skills, but opened their eyes to the vast career opportunities that drones can unlock after graduation.

The Great Oak Drone Squadron had recently acquired an advanced DJI Matrice 600. The commercial drone platform gave the Squadron heavier lift capabilities, and the customizable payload bay meant students could get very creative in the type of missions they conducted. After several months though, the highly-capable Matrice platform was not seeing much use in the Drone Squadron’s routine flights.

“The Matrice was being under-utilized, and we wanted to find a viable use case for it,” said Barberides. “So, we started doing some research on how to put the Matrice to work for us. That’s when we found A2Z Drone Delivery.”

“We approached our principal, Aimee Ricken, about expanding our program and she assisted by providing resources for us through a grant that allowed us to make the purchase. It makes a huge difference to any organization when the principal is in your corner, and principal Ricken has always been there for us, and for that we are truly grateful,” said Barberides.

The Great Oak Drone Squadron outfitted their Matrice 600 with an A2Z Drone Delivery RDS2 commercial drone winch. Able to attach to just about any drone platform, the commercial drone winch allowed the team to hang large banners and flags from the Matrice. When the school hosts large events like football games, graduation ceremonies, etc. the Great Oak Drone Squadron not only documents the event from the air, but student pilots fly in a large custom-made 10 x 15 foot American flag as part of the school’s color guard procession.

“The kids fly for videos all day long, but the A2Z winch gave us another component,” said Barberides. “If we didn’t have the winch a good portion of our missions wouldn’t be possible. The winch really breathed new life into the Matrice that wasn’t being used to its fullest potential.”

Students quickly became comfortable flying the large flag and sought to further exploit the unique capabilities the new RDS2 drone winch brought to their program. When the school celebrated its annual homecoming, student pilots took to the air to lower the crowns for the homecoming king and queen at the end of the winch’s tether.

As with any drone operations, the Great Oak Drone Squadron pays maximum attention to ensuring its missions are conducted safely and efficiently. Leveraging the A2Z drone winch to lower the crowns allowed the drone’s spinning propellers to be kept far from the students below, and meant that the noise of the Matrice’s six propellers wouldn’t disturb the audio equipment in use. Beyond its core safety protocols, the adoption of the commercial-grade RDS2 winch also gave the JROTC cadre the peace of mind needed to conduct such operations.

“When we sought out the drone winch, we wanted a proven commercial tool; there are students in close proximity to the drone operations and we didn’t want to risk using a DIY solution that could fail,” said Barberides. “We’ve grown so fast and we always want to ensure we are operating safely, so we are very cautious in all our flight preparations, in-flight activities, and with our equipment. We test every drone the day before a flight to ensure everything is working properly.”

Under the leadership of the JROTC instructors, and a revolving dedicated team of students, the Great Oak High School Air Force Junior ROTC Drone Squadron has grown exponentially. Not only has student participation drastically expanded, but the Squadron’s unique capabilities have grown to allow students access to more advanced drone missions.

Building its capabilities from the basics of drone flight to being able to conduct actual commercial-caliber operations with tools like the A2Z Drone Delivery drone winch have ensured the drone program delivers on its core mission of enacting a hands-on STEM curriculum for the students. The exposure to these drone capabilities have also led graduating students to secure their FAA Part 107 licenses as they prepare to pursue careers in aerospace.

“It’s fun flying with the kids and getting them interested in aerospace,” said Barberies. “I get to share some stories from my years of flying, and see students captivated by flight as much as I have been.”

Ultimately the Great Oak Drone Squadron has been recognized by the US Air Force as one of the top drone organizations in the country!

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