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DC brings drone technology to the classroom
Jan. 02, 2017

By Jennifer Von Ohlen
Staff Writer

As educators search for new ways to make teaching more effective, technology is continuously explored for encouraging student creativity.

Dassel-Cokato School District is no exception to using this method, but something that perhaps sets the district apart from some other area schools is its exploration in using drones.

The high school purchased a district drone during the 2015-2016 school year in order to prepare students for jobs that have yet to be created.

“I look at [the drone] industry as one of those where we don’t know what the heck we’re going to use these things for,” stated DCHS agricultural instructor Eric Sawatzke. “We just have to get the kids excited about them. We just have to get them out there [so] they feel like they kinda get it.”

When it comes to trying new teaching methods, Area Learning Center science instructor Patrick Schuette sometimes feels that schools “too often” like to see evidence that the tactic works before investing in it. While he acknowledges their reasons are understandable, he commented that “sometimes there has to be a little bit of faith that ‘yes, this is new, and we don’t know for sure that it works, but have faith that it is the right thing and that it will be successful.’”

Sawatzke compared this mindset to those of some college professors when the first smartphones were released.

He said when these phones first came out, the idea of an app was just getting started. Not really knowing where the technology was going to go, but knowing it was headed somewhere, professors started to create college classes that would look into an app’s development. As their students learned this technology, many were able to create their own apps and received money for their creations.

“These professors didn’t know what the heck this was going to be, they just knew it existed,” Sawatzke commented.

In the same way, teachers and industries are uncertain of what operating a drone can accomplish, but some of DC’s faculty believe it is important to train students now, so they will already have the knowledge as the answers are discovered.

“We don’t have the jobs, but we have the technology,” explained Schuette. “If [students] know how to use it, and are very proficient in it, they’ll be the first to get those jobs, because they have skills that no one else has.”

A few local businesses have already started integrating this technology also, including Centra Sota in Cokato.

Last year, Centra Sota conducted three DC career day sessions focused on drone technology, and each one filled up with students having agriculture interests, as well as other pursuits.

“They were telling the kids, ‘We need you to fly a drone, and we will hire you if you know how to fly a drone.’ If you’re excited to work outside, have a basic understanding of plant production, and capabilities like drone use, you could write your ticket right now,” said Sawatzke.

“If you possess the skills of understanding mapping, data collecting, and aerial photography – wow, you are super employable,” added Schuette.

Spreading the idea

Because merging drone technology with high school education is a rather new concept, DC teachers have had to create their own curriculum since there are none to refer to in developing lesson plans.

Excited about their results so far, however, Schuette and media specialist Justin Larson presented DC’s drone usage at the 2016 TIES Education Technology Conference Dec. 12. There, they highlighted the process of acquiring and selecting the drone, as well as some of the ways it has been used by DC’s sports program and its broadcast journalism, science, and agriculture classes.

Following the conference, Larson and Schuette were approached by a teacher from Orono High School, who said his school recently purchased two drones, but they haven’t been used because no one knows how to operate them.

He then asked Schuette and Larson if they could train him in some basic flight skills and help him prepare it for student use.

Schuette was also approached by a science methods professor from the University of Minnesota, Duluth, who asked him to FaceTime one of her classes next semester to talk about using nontraditional teaching methods meant to engage students.

“That’s really an amazing thing,” said Schuette, “to just make connections and get DC out there saying ‘we’re doing cool stuff.’”

‘Doing cool stuff’

With agriculture ranking second to the military when it comes to drone usage, Sawatzke is excited to merge the technology with his classroom and teach his students how it can benefit the industry

For instance, students can learn how to collect and analyze infrared data in crops, take aerial photography (and stitch images together), or even spot spray a pest infested area – all by using the drone.

“It’s about getting these kids to be creative and think about, ‘I have something I can put in the air myself as owner of a farm, as owner of a business, or a potential provider of a service. What can I do [with it] now?’”

Schuette also teaches his students how to use their creative thinking skills as they learn about conservation.

Making use of Collinwood Lake Park, southwest of Cokato, Schuette assigned his students an eco-tourism video, in which they had to capture footage of the park’s different features – the lake, trails, campground, etc. – and compile them all to create a type of advertisement.

When Schuette’s students learned they would personally be flying the drone, Schuette said they were in absolute shock.

“My students, in general, typically don’t have as much money [as their classmates],” explained Schuette, “and for them to have something that’s $1,200, and be trusted with it is not that common.”

“We are forward thinking,” Sawatzke commented; “Willing to put some resources out there for [students], or to be able to give kids opportunities they wouldn’t otherwise have.”

In the future, Schuette hopes students will be able to GPS and map sunfish beds within a lake, and use data to identify bedding behaviors.

Sawatzke’s goal is for his students to learn how to combine drone technology with a tractor’s computer system.

“We’re just scraping the very very surface of all this in-depth stuff we could be doing,” Sawatzke stated. “The opportunities and possibilities are pretty endless.”

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