HAMLET — The partitioned banquet and meeting area at Cole Auditorium was filled with a high-pitched buzzing sound Thursday afternoon.
There wasn’t anything wrong with the electrical wiring — the sound was coming from tiny drones flying through the rooms.
Seventeen middle school-aged students wrapped up a camp at Richmond Community College by programming the machines to fly in specific patterns.
Instructor Jeff Epps, of STEMERALD City, used his phone to record a drone programmed by rising eighth-grade homeschoolers Carson Hadinger and Knox Layton rise up from its starting point, fly through one hoop, rotate, go through another hoop, drop down to go through a third hoop, rise back up, turn around and go back through the first two hoops and land.
“Nailed it,” Epps said as the drone touched down from where it started.
Hadinger said it took about an hour to program the flight pattern and that the drone crashed at least eight times before they got it right. They even had to account for the downdraft from the air conditioner.
It’s that tenacity that Epps said he and Chad Osborne, STEM teacher at Hamlet Middle School, are trying to instill.
The camp also included the students playing chess one hour each day for strategic thinking.
“We want them to be relentless … (in) problem solving,” he said.
Epps and Devon Hall, dean of applied sciences and engineering, said local employers want workers who can collaborate and know how to think and solve problems using the scientific method.
“A lot of the local employers are having a hard time trying to find skilled employees,” Hall said. “They want kids, while they’re in middle school, to come over to their facilities to get an idea (of) what exactly is it these facilities do.”
Hall said many kids in the community are being discouraged from factory work from family members describing harsh working conditions — which isn’t the way manufacturing is now.
“It’s no longer labor intensive, it’s automated,” he said.
Hall added that it’s easier to record what goes on inside a manufacturing facility than it is to have students physically visit the site.
“We created a series of videos where kids can get an opportunity to basically tour these facilities, see what they do,” he continued. “And also understand how the things that they’re learning in class relate to what’s going on in the manufacturing facility.”
Hall said there are currently five local companies that are participating: Plastek, Therafirm, Cascades, Service Threads and Global Packaging.
While the kids at the camp are having fun learning how to program drones to perform aerial maneuvers, Hall said they’re also learning critical skills that are transferable.
“If a kid can write code to get a drone to go through a series of hoops and land on certain targets … they now have the skill to program a machine,” he said.
Hall added that he’d like to see more diversity (female and minority students) in future camps.
“If the students don’t get these skills today, while they’re in middle school, they’re not going to be competitive 10 years from now when they go into the workplace,” he said. “These are going to be the high-payed folks of the future.”
Epps and Osborne have run summer STEM camps for a decade and many of the students come back year after year, as long as they’re eligible.
Epps said he and Osborne push the repeat campers when they say they can’t do something and tell them, “We know what you’re capable of because you already showed us.”
Michael Barbee helps Adriana Shepard set the parameters to program a flight pattern for a drone.
Both Hadinger and Layton are returning students, as is 12-year-old Michael Barbee.
A student at Cordova Middle School and son of RichmondCC Executive Vice President Brent Barbee, Michael Barbee first became interested when his older brother was attending the camps “years and years and years ago.”
“I’ve been able to go to a lot of camps and I’ve known Mr. O and Mr. Epps …the best teachers in the world … (and) I’ve done a bunch of coding,” he said, after helping another student set new instructions for one of the drones. “If I didn’t know any coding, I wouldn’t be able to do this right now.
He created a video game through coding when he was 9.
Epps said Barbee told his parents he would rather be at a STEM camp than go to the beach.
Outside of the camps, Barbee said he’s learned a lot about drones at home by watching YouTube videos.
He plans to get a drone pilot’s license for photography when he gets a little older, but his goal is to be an automotive engineer.
Osborne commented that the real future application of learning how to program drones is related to driverless cars.
One former student, who also went through private tutoring with Epps, is now a certified drone pilot.
Up until last year, Ashley McGuire was “dead set” on being a trauma surgeon.
However, she started branching out into engineering.
She said she would go to Epps’ office when he was still at RichmondCC and he would ask, “What do you think you want to do?”
After thinking about it, McGuire said she decided on the aerospace field.
“And so we went down that path … and this year I’m going to be attending North Carolina State (University) to study aerospace engineering,” she said.
The thing about drones, Osborne said, is that they’re a “great gateway to robotics.”
STEM instructors Chad Osborne, left, and Jeff Epps, right, pose with Ashley McGuire who recently became a licensed drone pilot.
Two other Richmond Senior students, Mykayla Griffis and Megan Furr, recently passed their FAA drone certification exams during a Junior ROTC leadership camp at Fort Jackson, South Carolina.
“It’s a gateway to industry, it’s a gateway to teaching kids how to program,” he added. “It has immense industrial applications for farming, for any type of manufacturing process …it’s a lot more than just taking off and landing (and) taking pictures to sell houses.”
Osborne said there will be a lot more jobs in the drone field after 5G is rolled out.
Keeping to the state’s claim as “First in Flight,” Osborne said the N.C. Department of Transportation has made a commitment to be “First in Drones.”
“There’s cool things going on in North Carolina that are not going on anywhere else,” he said.
Epps will be teaching another drone camp next week in Dobbins Heights.