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Drone curriculum takes flight in Polson Middle School

by BERL TISKUS
Reporter | March 28, 2024 12:00 AM

Just the word “drone” entices kids; they want to get their hands on the intricate machines and learn how to fly them.

If they attend Polson Middle School, they are in luck. Tami Morrison teaches STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Math) classes for sixth, seventh, and eighth graders, and the students are working with classroom-sized drones. 

Morrison is one of eight teachers in the U.S.A. piloting a curriculum called Take Flight.

Once the bell rings and roll is taken, Morrison explains the day’s drone work. Each kid, who has personalized his or her flight manual, locates it and a pen. 

Morrison asks them to join their groups; and each group member has a job – gather their drone box, grab a camera, or make sure they have writing materials.

Kingston Funke’s fingers easily manipulated the tiny screwdriver as he dismantled the ailing classroom drone he and his group had been attempting to fly.

“I work on cars with my dad,” Funke said, explaining why he's good at taking the drone apart. Then he read the directions and put it back together.    

Today the students are to practice drone landings and take-offs, construct a flight map of the lunchroom including tables, trash cans and vending machines, and take some still photos. 

Morrison hands out the batteries, and the class flees.

The students quickly install the batteries, and then the hand-sized drones enter the airspace.

A young lady named Mercy explains the steering mechanism to me. 

“You use the joysticks,” she said. The toggle on the left side of the control box is pushed forward to make the drone go up; you push it backward to land the drone.

Her group partner joins the conversation. 

“The right side (of the control box) toggle is for forward and backward and turns,” Zac said.   

Take Flight – the curriculum

“Take Flight is a new drone curriculum made available through funding from the National Science Foundation,” Amanda Bastoni said. 

The NSF is funding the program for a cool $1.5 million over five years. Bastoni is the director of Career Technical and Adult Education for CAST, Inc., an organization that, according to its website, seeks to “bust the barriers to learning,” and Take Flight is her baby. 

“It was my idea, and I wrote the grant (for CAST),” Bastoni explained.

With a background in universal design for learning, which is a framework for education dealing with best educational practices, Bastoni said Take Flight was first designed for rural schools in Maine and New Hampshire, but the grant has been expanded to include Montana. She works remotely and lives in Polson.

“The goal of the grant is to support rural girls to consider STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) careers,” Bastoni said.

But that doesn’t mean boys are excluded. The curriculum is for all kids, and it’s free.

There are subtle ways to make girls feel comfortable in this project. A few examples are: groups are comprised of all girls if class composition makes it possible; the first activity involves a drone that doesn’t have a controller, since boys are statistically more likely to play video games and to be adept using controllers, and kids who haven’t used a controller might get the sense they don’t belong; the videos display women in high-level STEM careers; in each group every person has to spend an equal amount of time flying the drone and landing the drone.

“The idea is to help the girls feel like they belong in STEM careers,” Bastoni explained.

She added that there are sometimes barriers in rural communities, such as no STEM industries in that community. Also kids can’t get a job unless they have a car since most rural communities don’t have public transportation. There also may not be any high tech opportunities for employment.

The curriculum and accompanying professional development is free, and the drones were purchased by the district, according to Bastoni. A classroom kit for 21 kids, an average class size, costs $1,500.

“I am the principle investigator (PI) or leader on this project nationally, and I am so excited that Polson is part of the project,” Bastoni continued. 

The first and second years, she’s asking teachers to roll out the curriculum. Take Flight needs teachers to give feedback on what works and what doesn’t work so at the end of four years, it will be even more amazing. 

Year three will see 24 teachers countrywide debuting Take Flight. Many of those teachers could be here on the Flathead Confederated Salish and Kootenai Reservation. 

Spreading the word

Bastoni has already visited both the Kootenai and the Salish Culture Committees, and she’s shared information on Take Flight with Michelle Mitchell, head of CSKT education. 

Asked by Louise Mitchell from the Salish Kootenai College Library to present information about Take Flight to a group of seven Two Eagle River teachers and a Valley View teacher, Bastoni has been out spreading the word around the reservation, too.

She’s also been invited to the International Society for Technology in Education in Denver on June 22-26 and schools in Oregon and California have been asking, “Can we fly you out?” 

While Polson is rolling out Take Flight, Bastoni and her group would like to have rural schools in the area apply to teach the class next year. 

To make the curriculum more accessible, Take Flight is designed so any middle school STEM class, including math, science and technology, could add the intriguing facet of flying drones to their curriculum.

“We couldn’t do it without teachers like Tami and the kids in their classes and their feedback,” Bastoni reiterated. “We know the curriculum is in draft form. Tami has been a great partner.” 

"Take Flight has given the majority of my students the confidence to try something new, take risks, and discover the possibilities that drones provide," Morrison said. "It also creates awareness of future careers they might be interested in, by using drones in STEM fields. My hope is that an idea will be presented to my students that sparks a future interest or passion and the confidence to go for it." 

Take Flight is currently recruiting middle school educators for the 2024-2025 school year (sign up by May 2024). For more information, contact Amanda Bastoni at abastoni@cast.org or Janet Gronneberg at jgronneberg@cast.org.

    This red beast is a closeup of the drones that students in Tami Morrison's STEAM classes fly. (Berl Tiskus/Leader)
 
 
    Each child in Tami Morrison's STEAM class has a drone flight book with Missions and flight practices/exercises to complete for each Mission. (Berl Tiskus/Leader)