For two weeks Florida Panhandle Technical College was home away from home to faculty members from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and PAEC personnel, who provided Unmanned Systems STEM Summer Challenges to groups of middle and high school students from Walton, Holmes, Washington, Jackson, and Calhoun Counties. The events were provided at no cost to participating students through an Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University partnership with the Panhandle Area Educational Consortium. PAEC coordinated all aspects of project activities. Florida Panhandle Technical College, another project partner provided space and technical support for the challenge activities.
During the first week, June 5-7, rising freshmen from Walton and Holmes Counties participated and during the week of June 12-14, rising sophomores from Calhoun, Jackson and Washington Counties took part. Students were first divided into flight squadrons, which were led by STEM teachers from the participating districts and then, into flight crews of three. Over the course of the three days, crews took part in a series of academically challenging and fast-paced rotations where they were required to fly mini-drones live using sky controllers and learn and apply computer coding skills to navigate aerial and terrestrial drones. Each day, the skill-demand of the activities increased and on day three crews used first person view headsets to fly live through an obstacle course and coded aerial and terrestrial devices to autonomously navigate a variety of routes and obstacle courses and carry out simulated tasks paralleling real-world uses of autonomous aerial systems. Crews also designed, constructed, and raced a hovercraft and like NASA flight crews, each designed their own unique, symbolic three-dimensional crew patch. Participants during week one heard career presenter, Lieutenant Colonel Tucker “Cinco” Hamilton, Commander of the 461st Flight Test Squadron and Director of the F-35 Integrated Test Force at Edwards Air Force Base, California. Week two presenter was Sam Harris, Assistant Professor and Regional Manager, Gaetz Aerospace Institute at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.
The purpose of the Challenge events is to engage and area students in STEM education and inform them of career opportunities, primarily in the areas of aerospace and engineering. Opportunities for high-wage employment in these career areas continues to grow as unmanned or autonomous systems gain in sophistication, applications expand and the demand for new systems and operators grows. Financial impact totals in the billions of dollars across military, commercial, personal, and technology sectors.