Northern exposure

UND takes world-class UAS program on the road to small, Canadian border school system for outreach initiative

Nearly 200 students were pilots for a day in Walhalla, N.D., learning how to operate the controls of small unmanned aircraft systems. Image courtesy of Paul Snyder.

Nearly 200 students were pilots for a day in Walhalla, N.D., learning how to operate the controls of small unmanned aircraft systems. Image courtesy of Paul Snyder.

The school gym in Walhalla, N.D., a community of fewer than 1,000 people, was buzzing on Oct. 16.

If it wasn’t the drone of spinning propellers in the air, it was the eager energy of the kids at the controls.

That morning, before the sun rose, three members of the UND Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) program hit the road with two of their students and a vehicle full of small UAS. They would spend the day showing nearly 200 students, preschool through twelfth grade, the possibilities of a UAS education.

“At every age, I saw students who were really excited,” said Paul Snyder, assistant chair of the UND UAS program.  “Everything from a preschooler physically shaking with excitement to a senior who turned to me with this ‘look-at-me!’ smile on her face.”

The UND team broke the day into one-hour UAS sessions for every age group, tailored to their respective level of learning.

Every lesson covered UAS safety, applications and careers, UND’s program opportunities, and the best part – hands-on flying. Each student had his or her own UAS to take off, land, and move in every direction.

“If you put this small device in front of them, that anybody can do, then they start thinking, ‘I can do this.’ All of a sudden their minds open up,” Snyder said.

“What’s really exciting is when they stop looking at it as a toy, and we start talking about all the cool things you can do with UAS and all the careers fields available,” said UND Chief UAS Pilot Amanda Brandt, who guided the young pilots through their flights. “These are choices – and there’s a great university that offers them just down the road.”

Rise of UAS

This outreach event started with a phone call from North Border High School science teacher Frank Martz. He had no connections with the UND Aviation program, but knew he wanted to give his school an experience in a leading-edge field.

Paul Snyder answered the call.

“It didn’t take but five minutes and Paul said, ‘Yes. We’d like to come,’” Martz remembers. “For Paul and his staff to come out to schools in North Dakota – that really tells me something about UND and the people working there.”

Brandt wishes she could jump in a car every week and travel to more remote schools like Walhalla, which don’t have the resources to fully recognize North Dakota’s blooming UAS climate. UND has become a focal point of that environment with the establishment of the Research Institute for Autonomous Systems – known as RIAS – and the inclusion of UAS research and development as one of the UND Strategic Plan’s five Grand Challenges.

“To have such an investment in autonomy and UAS going on right here in Grand Forks, with Grand Sky and the University, it’s a shame that there’s not more of a ripple effect that goes further past the Fargo and Grand Forks areas,” she said. “You don’t want someone, just because of their geographic location, to be excluded from what’s a really exciting career field.”

For the career portion of UND’s presentation, the team explained that the uses of UAS have gone far beyond the military applications for which they were initially known. Now, companies are using UAS in interdisciplinary ways to inspect powerlines, monitor crop production, help in police work, and commercially shoot video.

Beyond showing students that these jobs are within reach, the program was meant to open up another discussion – the value of higher education.

“If just one kid, who never thought about college, went home that day and talked to their parents about college for the first time … that’s the exciting part for me,” Brandt said.

“UND develops leaders in action, and this was a way to show how we develop, train and educate those leaders,” said Assistant Chief UAS Pilot Erin Roesler. “I joked with a student wearing a UND Fighting Hawks sweatshirt, ‘You’re all ready to go to UND.’ The boy, with 100 percent confidence, replied, ‘I am going to UND.’ That’s the kind of thing that makes you UND proud.”

Three members of the UND UAS Program and two of their students took a hands-on learning experience to Walhalla, N.D., in October to spread the word about UND Aviation and the growing field of UAS. Left to right: Jordan Krueger, Paul Snyder, Alexis Hesse, Amanda Brandt, Erin Roesler

Three members of the UND UAS Program and two of their students took a hands-on learning experience to Walhalla, N.D., in October, to spread word about UND Aviation and the growing field of UAS. Left to right: Jordan Krueger, Paul Snyder, Alexis Hesse, Amanda Brandt, Erin Roesler. Image courtesy of Paul Snyder.

Teaching & learning

Two UND UAS students who volunteered to assist on the trip picked up their own lessons in event coordination, teaching and leadership. Junior Commercial Aviation and UAS Operations major Jordan Krueger brought his own camera-clad UAS and let the preschoolers watch a live video feed through the goggles.

“Their faces just absolutely lit up,” the Wisconsin native recalled. “I was talking to them and explaining what was going on, and they were jumping around and asking me questions.”

Alexis Hesse, a freshman UAS Operations major from Bismarck, N.D., used one-on-one opportunities to share her first-year UND Aviation experience with high school students who may soon follow her flight plan.

“As students, we could tell them a little bit about the school or answer questions about campus life,” she said. “It gives them a different perspective, and helps them feel like they’re not just being presented to. They’re having a conversation.”

“It shows you the caliber of students that we have,” Snyder beamed. “They care about the aviation industry, they’re excited about the field, and they want to share that with others.”

Snyder and his crew plan to continue taking the program to more schools in other corners of the state – spreading the buzz about UAS and UND.

“What was gained was immeasurable. We got educated about UAS, all of us, both faculty and students,” Martz said. “If you can ignite a little fire in some of these people, at this age, it may lead to lifelong job.”