Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of six articles focused on some of the new electives at Sandpoint Middle School that give seventh- and eighth-grade students a jumpstart in learning hands-on skills. This article features the drone program.; the next story will focus on the school’s robotics class, taught by Mary Marienau.
By MARY MALONE
SANDPOINT — In the last year, Sandpoint Middle School went from having about five electives to more than 20, largely supported by grants from community and state organizations.
"It's not the traditional middle school it was last year," said SMS instructor Dinah Gaddie. "... It's really exciting that we have all of this available to them."
Three SMS teachers each received $2,500 grants from the Idaho STEM Action Center. Gaddie teaches computer science connections, introduction to computer science and 3D printing, Future City and robotics to seventh- and eighth-grade students. Last semester, her students learned about, designed, built and flew their own drones.
"They built these from scratch," Gaddie said as she played a video of the first student drone flight. "Every piece, we parted them out and they did all of the electronics and circuitry."
A new set of students recently started the class for the current semester as well.
She said her $2,500 grant covered the purchase of drones and curriculum to go along with it. The purpose of the drone project is to teach the kids about real world applications, computer science and electronics. Classes like hers, she said, support what the core teachers are teaching. She said there is a lot of math that goes into projects like drones, such as wingspan and discussing Pythagoras's theorem on triangles, and student's will tell her, "Oh, we do this in math."
"Well this is where math applies, so I feel like it's a place where I can take the concepts they are learning in their other classes, and when kids say, 'Why do we have to learn this,' I can say, 'This is why we learn this.' Knowledge is one thing, but application is a completely different story and I am all about application learning."
The class also teaches social and emotional learning, because students work together in groups to complete their projects.
Zander Moore, SMS eighth-grader, said he enjoyed the class so much last semester he has been trying to convince Gaddie to let him take it again, but with so many students wanting to take the class, she has to give others a chance to take it.
"It was a lot of fun at the end because we got to kind of play around and work with the drones," Zander said.
The actual building of the drone doesn't happen until later in the semester. Gaddie said she does an invention unit first to get the students familiar with design concepts and to get them used to the idea that things don't always turn out right the first time. She does a short unit on flight, covering things like horizontal versus vertical take-off. They go over the parts they will need and get real estimates on how much it would cost for the parts and budget. They also go over the ethics of drones.
"We are right now trying to figure out where regulations should be, and people have privacy concerns," Gaddie said.
Zander said he enjoyed the hands-on learning, but one downside when it came to actually putting the drone together was when he put some stuff together wrong, but he had to "just go with it" and it still worked at the end. He said they screwed smaller sections of the drone together first, then put those sections together to complete it. They also used zip ties to hold the wires in place.
SMS Principal Casey McLaughlin said the school used to have a traditional schedule and changed to a block schedule this year, which allowed the added electives without having to hire any additional staff or incur any additional costs. He said the electives add more STEM and hands-on learning opportunities for the students. These skills will serve them well in a world where technology is constantly evolving and changing.