Elias Vazquez, Ethan Wilms, Tyler Gobel and Samuel Noblega preparing to fly a drone in the McManus cafeteria as part of a project that put into action the lessons they learned in the classroom. About 120 students took part. 

Watch video of some of the drone flights:

By Gary Miller

As a teacher, you know you’re doing something right when your students are so excited about what they’re learning that they beg to stay after the bell rings.

That’s the situation Howard Schulz, a technology teacher at McManus Middle School, found himself in recently when his students applied what they were learning in his computer coding class to flying drones.

The students – about 120 seventh- and eighth-graders – were given what sounds like the simple task of launching the drones from one side of the cafeteria, flying them around a cone at the other end of the room, and landing them back where they started. But these were not remote-controlled drones. All the flying had to be pre-programmed using the skills the students learned in class.

“Every class that week was very excited, very focused,” Schulz said of the lesson in December. “They were like, ‘We’ve got to do this.’ And the people who didn’t succeed, at the end of the class they were saying, ‘Can I have five more minutes?’ No, you’ve got to go to class.”

Landing the drones in the square taped off on the cafeteria floor took a lot of trial and error. Students worked in small groups on getting the commands exactly right, and ran flight after flight, modifying their commands based on the results.

“There’s a lot of variables in this,” Schulz told a group of visitors that included Superintendent Danny A. Robertozzi, Assistant Superintendent Denise Cleary, Business Administrator and Board Secretary Kathleen Gaylord, and Director of Technology Michael Walters. “If you have a window open and a breeze comes in, the drone will go from going forward to going up in the air. It is challenging, and they are coding.”

student working with superintendent robertozzi and Mr. Walters

Eighth-grader Isabelle Brito working with Superintendent Danny A. Robertozzi and Director of Technology Michael Walters on coding a drone.

During their visit, Dr. Robertozzi and Mr. Walters sat with eighth-grader Isabelle Brito, who taught them the basics so they could give it a try.

“It’s a lot harder than it looks,” Dr. Robertozzi said. “But Mr. Schulz and these students are doing an amazing job at taking what they’re learning in the classroom and applying it in a real-world setting. Technology like this is vital to their education going forward, and this lesson gives them a small glimpse at what’s possible.”

In the classroom, student are learning to code using Swift, an Apple language for developing apps in iPads and iPhones.

“The drones were a set of lessons to practice what we’ve learned so far – giving simple commands, trying to run for-loops, creating functions – basically taking what we’ve learned in the classroom and applying it to a real-life situation,” Schulz said.

“The students get a little bit bored of coding with puzzles, so we try to bring in something that piques their interest. I was able to find refurbished drones on Amazon. It was really to get them excited again about the coding and to do something fun with them before the holidays.”

And the students’ reaction?

“Well, we’re back in the classroom now, and everybody is saying, ‘When are we going back to the cafeteria?’ ” Schulz said. “I say, ‘We have to go back into the classroom for a little while, then we’ll go back.’

“I think they really like it and they want to do more with it.”

teacher working with students on tablet computer

McManus Middle School technology teacher Howard Schulz working with students on programming their drone.