At a STEM-driven summer program, middle schoolers pilot drones to learn about coding and computing

July 27, 2022
kids fly drones at Hamilton Elementary

"Drone going up.
Drone going up.
Drone going up."

The phrase rings out three times before each flight takes off. It's a heads-up for those in the fly zone: Look out, drone coming through. These small, plastic aircraft wouldn't do much harm if they hit you, but better to overcommunicate than risk getting nicked by a whirring wing.

For six weeks, West Philadelphia middle schoolers steer these drones through spacious classrooms at Hamilton Elementary and the Penn Alexander School. The program is a partnership between Penn GSE and Drone Cadets, an education program accredited by STEM.org. There are landing pads, obstacle courses, and even “drone bowling,” which tasks pilots with ramming into rows of empty water bottles in an arrowhead formation.

The flying takes place in the afternoon during the Office of School and Community Engagement (OSCE) summer program, a partnership with Penn's Netter Center for Community Partnerships. Other kids spend the timeslot with activities such as theater, art, and track and field.

The drone program received a $25,000 grant from the National Black Empowerment Council, and predominantly services Black students. "Proficiency in STEM is essential to one's advancement, self-determination, and overall quality of life in our modern age," said Darius Jones, founder and president of the council. "The science and technology train has long left the station. African-American children cannot and will not be left behind."


Penn GSE Dean Pam Grossman learns how to fly a drone at the OSCE Summer Program.

Also supporting the initiative is John Henry and his company Grace3 Technologies. “I am exposed to next-generation technologies every day," said Henry, who is also a board member of the National Black Empowerment Council. "It’s imperative that African-American students are exposed to the same best-in-class technologies."

On July 22, Penn GSE Dean Pam Grossman stopped by Hamilton Elementary to meet the middle school pilots and talk tech with Jones and Henry. Dean Grossman also tried her hand at driving a drone but stopped short of trying to navigate an obstacle course. She left that to the pros.

After the summer, the program hopes to become a regular after-school activity in West Philadelphia.