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Virginia Tech Innovation Campus Helps Alexandria Students Take Flight

ACPS Middle Schoolers Participate in Virginia Tech Sponsored Drone Program

VA Tech engineers and ACPS students
Virginia Tech MAAP engineers with ACPS teachers who took part in instructing the drone program. (Photo: Lucelle O’Flaherty)

ALEXANDRIA, VA – From July 24–28, 2023, Alexandria City Public Schools junior high students participated in a new drone program sponsored by Virginia Tech. The program, facilitated by Dr. Pamela Gilchrist – Director of K-12 Programs at the Virginia Tech Innovation Campus, was designed to provide students access to new and exciting drone technology.

Dr. Pamela Gilchrist with ACPS students
Middle school students with Dr. Pamela Gilchrist, Director of K-12 Programs at the Virginia Tech Innovation Campus. (Photo: Lucelle O’Flaherty

The week-long “drone camp” for seventh and eighth graders was created in the summer of 2022. It was a collaboration between Virginia Tech’s Center for Enhancement of Engineering Diversity and its Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership (MAAP). While the program is open to all middle school students in Virginia, according to Dr. Gilchrist, its focus is “historically underrepresented students who have not had the experience or engagement in this type of technical study.”

Dr. Gilchrist, based in Virginia Tech’s innovation campus in Alexandria, was inspired to bring the program to Alexandria after seeing videos of the students testing their drones during the 2022 program at Virginia Tech. “I saw an opportunity to create a great experience in one of the most diverse districts in Virginia.”

A Virginia Tech Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership (MAAP) engineer assists a student in assembling a drone at the week-long Virginia Tech drone program. (Photo: Lucelle O’Flaherty)

Thirty-seven students from George Washington Middle School, Francis C. Hammond, Jefferson Houston, and Patrick Henry participated in the program. In addition, select educators from these schools were provided instruction on building drones by Virginia Tech’s MAAP engineers and then assisted the MAAP team with teaching the program.

A student focuses on inspecting a drone part. (Photo: Lucelle O’Flaherty)

In addition to building their drones, students learned about the following:

  • The components that make up a drone
  • A drone’s functionality
  • The science of flight
  • The Federal Aviation Association (FAA) flight certification test
  • The FAA drone Recreational UAS Safety Test (TRUST), something students completed during the week
  • The FAA 107 Certification Course used to become a professional drone pilot
  • Careers in the drone industry

Students also toured Aurora Flight Sciences in Manassas, a Boeing company that “delivers innovations across aircraft configurations, autonomous systems, propulsion technologies, and manufacturing processes.” They could walk a real runway and use VR goggles to practice flying drones there.

Giving a big thumbs-up! (Photo: Lucelle O’Flaherty)

“My favorite part of the program was learning about the Aurora Sciences Facility and how drones act like planes,” said one rising eighth grader at Francis C. Hammond. “I will definitely use the patience and technical skills I learned in the course in my future education.”

Heading into seventh grade at George Washington Middle School, another student said she wanted to do the program because she is interested in STEM and drones in general. “It is cool that I can fly a drone anywhere now that we have received the TRUST certificate.”

Virginia Tech’s FAA-certified drone park. (Courtesy of Dr. Pamela Gilchrist)

The program culminated with the students taking an overnight trip with their parents to Virginia Tech, where they tested their drones in the only FAA-certified drone park in the nation. Students participated in a drone challenge showcase at the park that tested their depth perception. At the end of the trip, Dr. Gilchrist and the MAAP staff presented the students with a certificate of completion and celebrated their accomplishments.

Students and drone program staff observe the testing in the drone park. (Courtesy of Dr. Pamela Gilchrist)

Still another rising eighth grader at GW and a rising seventh grader at Hammond, were excited to visit Virginia Tech and sleep in the dorms during the drone testing phase. They enjoyed learning how to build and fly drones and expressed interest in pursuing aeronautical engineering as a field of study.

Dr. Gilchrist hopes to bring the drone program to other schools in Northern Virginia next summer. [SEE ALSO: Meet Giovanna Portugal]

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