Mark Miner (left), a drone consultant from Des Moines, explains a potential problem with Carroll High School junior Sully Drumheller during an examination of a drone constructed in the Science, Technology and Research (STAR) class. The program was offered for the first time this semester and was funded through a grant from the Carroll High School Foundation.
Mark Miner (left), a drone consultant from Des Moines, explains a potential problem with Carroll High School junior Sully Drumheller during an examination of a drone constructed in the Science, Technology and Research (STAR) class. The program was offered for the first time this semester and was funded through a grant from the Carroll High School Foundation.

December 14, 2016

The look on his face was exasperation.

After hours and hours of carefully constructing his four-rotor drone, Carroll High School junior Sully Drumheller found he’d soldered an engine to the wrong wing of the aircraft.

“Don’t worry about it,” drone aficionado Dr. Mark Miner told him. “Do you want to know what the easiest way to fix that is? Just switch the entire wing with the one next to it.”

A look of relief passed over Drumheller’s face. Less than three hours later the Christmas-colored drone was cutting through the frozen air outside the school like a penguin in the water.

Drummheller, two of his STAR (Science, Technology and Research) classmates and three others were given the opportunity to build and program their own drones this semester. As of Tuesday night, all but one had flown successful test flights with the help of Miner’s expertise. The CHS Foundation made the whole thing possible by funding the purchase of parts to construct five of the drones.

Miner, who lives in Des Moines and serves as the emergency room director at Lakes Regional Health Center in Spirit Lake, became interested in drones about six years ago. He estimates he’s built or worked on at least 120 different drones since then.

“It’s so much fun. It’s almost addicting once you get into it,” he said. “I’d love to see these kids continue on when we’re done because you learn so much and almost everything is hands on.”

Miner may never have been hooked up with Kent Muyskens’ STAR class if it weren’t for an injury suffered by CHS Foundation Secretary Robert Peters.

“Dr. Miner was treating me, probably just making small talk to keep my mind off the pain, and we started talking about drones,” Peters said, declining to elaborate on the nature of the injury. “After a bit I thought, ‘This might be a perfect fit.’ ”

The students began constructing the remote-controlled flying machines with Miner and Muyskens on Dec. 3 and planned test flights for Dec. 10, but weather forced them to back off until Tuesday. By liftoff time, each student had put in at least 10 hours building a drone.

“It’s cool because you learn a lot, but you’re not really thinking about learning,” senior Tanner Finken said. “Plus, you get to fly them when you’re done.”

The drones themselves are considered “beginner drones.” Each one costs $180 to $200, is about two feet wide, can fly thousands of feet in the air if desired and has a top speed of about 20 mph. Miner says adding a more powerful battery will increase the top speed to about 30 mph.

These drones are meant to be fun, maneuverable and easy to learn to fly.

The STAR class was made possible by a $50,000 grant Muskens received from the Governor’s STEM Council. The money has been used to fund class projects, purchase a 3-D printer and other new technologies. Peters said the CHS Foundation saw that as a first step to help students learn in different ways.

“This is our first step to try to keep excellent teachers like Kent and Angie (Emerick) inspiring students to think out of the box,” Peters said. “If you’re putting it together and it’s fun and you see the lights light up I think you’re learning things without having to be told you’re learning. It makes it an experience that we hope will carry on.”

Emerick echoed Peters, saying sometimes teachers hear student gripes about how their classroom work translates to the real world. She said projects like this give students skills they can use in both their personal and profession lives.

Peters went a step further. He would like to see more public-private partnerships formed in the Carroll area to help keep local talent at home.

“I think (Des Moines Area Community College) ought to have aspirational goals of trying to fit into this community in a better way,” he said. “We’re trying to work at the high-school level letting businesses know that this is the kind of talent coming up.

Let’s inspire them to stay in the community by having DMACC offer programs employers want.”

Muskens says this project, which was done almost exclusively during student and teacher free time, carries over to his other classes during the day. For example, he’s teaching his students how to solder.

“I don’t know if I’d have tried to do that if I wasn’t already doing it with the drones,” he said. “It opens up other avenues to help students learn skills they can use in the future.”

Muskens says he feels fairly comfortable teaching kids to build drones in the future after learning from Miner the past couple of weeks, but he’s not sure whether they’ll build more this spring or next fall. He said it depends on funding and student demand.

“We really can’t thank (Miner) enough,” Muskens said. “I’m pretty sure we couldn’t have done this without his help.”