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Beebe high-schoolers to fly high with new drone class

by Angela Spencer | August 10, 2014 at 12:00 a.m.
Beebe High School 9-10 Principal Mike Tarkington is excited about the unmanned-aerial-vehicle class the school will introduce in the new school year.

High school is a time for students to get prepared for the future, whether to attend college or pursue a career, and one central-Arkansas school is trying to get a bird’s-eye view to predict what today’s teenagers will be working with in the future.

Beebe High School 9-10 will start a new class this year dedicated to building, programming and operating unmanned aerial vehicles, also known as drones.

Principal Mike Tarkington said the idea came to him while he was watching an episode of 60 Minutes last March.

“They were doing a special on drones,” he said. “They talked about Fortune 500 companies and what they were doing with [drones] and what they were planning to do with them. They mentioned Amazon and Domino’s Pizza, so I starting thinking [that offering a class on drones] would be pretty cool and a good way to get students excited about school, excited about education. I think this is a great way to do this.”

At that point, the educator became the student, and Tarkington started researching UAVs, including contacting one of his technology teachers, Chad Mercado. Tarkington and Mercado discussed the idea, and Mercado agreed to teach a UAV class for the 2014-15 school year.

Tarkington got the new class approved by Beebe School District administrators and contacted the Career and Technical Education Division of the Arkansas Department of Career Education, and the division gave its OK on the last day of the 2013-14 school year.

“June 5 was our last week when we got the OK from them,” Tarkington said. “We had already done background work. We had already gotten interest in the class and did a survey with students in Mr. Mercado’s class. There were 40 students who were interested in taking [the class]. We’re going to trim it to 20 or 25 because we want it to be very successful.”

The school got a $2,000 matching grant through the Arkansas Space Grant Consortium to start the class. Robert Sproles, who is senior scientist and senior project manager at Contestoga-Rovers & Associates and a corporate representative with the Arkansas Space Grant Consortium, helped Beebe High School apply for the grant.

“The Arkansas Space Grant Consortium provides grants to K-12 schools, undergraduate and graduate students throughout the state,” Sproles said. “The grants are competitively bid, and each proposal must have applicability to NASA research. The goal is to promote research and science education within the state and to provide an opportunity for exposure to NASA researchers and facilities.”

Sproles said he was not aware of any other high school programs in the state involved with UAVs, but there are many college programs that provide UAV opportunities.

“Students are naturally drawn to UAVs. They have a tremendous cool factor yet require a solid grasp of fundamentals across many disciplines to design, build and operate,” Sproles said. “My primary goal for this project is that at the end of the course, each student will say, ‘I can do this.’ I hope each student feels empowered to pursue education and a career based in science.”

Tarkington said the UAV class will develop many skills in students. The “cool factor,” as Sproles called it, draws the students in, but the plan is to utilize that novelty to teach them skills related to electronics, aeronautics, project management and teamwork.

“We want to build [UAVs], we want to program them, we want to outfit them, and we want to fly them,” Tarkington said. “There’s going to be aeronautics and engineering. We’re going to look at the business aspect of it. We’re going to look at the safety aspect of it. Engine design, navigation, programming — it’s going to be a neat deal.”

The UAV class will be a year long, and Tarkington said it will focus on rotocopters instead of fixed-wing UAVs, but as the program grows, he plans on expanding to different types of UAVs.

“We’re going to take baby steps right now and hopefully build a program,” he said. “I think it’ll happen. I think there’s a lot of interest out there.”

Developing the UAV class has been in the works for several months, and Tarkington said he has not heard any concerns about the program from the community.

As a working scientist himself, Sproles said, he hopes the course demonstrates to students that math and science are accessible and fun.

“There’s a popular stigma that math and science are hard. Science is rigorous, but every student can grasp the concepts if given the right motivation and opportunities,” he said. “It’s not all stuffy lab coats and chalkboards filled with equations. Yes, those things are important, but there are tangible, hands-on applications for science that are engaging, useful and, yes, even cool. If this course gives one student the confidence to pursue higher education, it will be a success. If one student decides to become a scientist based on what they do in this UAV course, it will be worth it.”

Staff writer Angela Spencer can be reached at (501) 244-4307 or


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