Sixteen young scientists from Gulf and Franklin counties recently spent three days on the campus of Gulf Coast State College



Sixteen young scientists from Gulf and Franklin counties recently spent three days on the campus of Gulf Coast State College in Panama City learning the newest “drone” technology.

The summer STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) camp was co-hosted by Gulf Coast and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, with funding coming through the Panhandle Area Education Consortium (PAEC).

The immersive camp allowed students to get hands-on experience with air, ground, and sea drones, through classroom discussion and peer competition.

The halls of Gulf Coast’s Advanced Technology Center were filled with the buzzing of children, and the buzzing of drone propellers.

Matthew Rocha, a 2016 graduate of Port St. Joe Jr./Sr. High School, was on hand to watch his brother participate in the camp.

Rocha, who now attends Embry- Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, himself participated in a pilot program for unmanned vehicles during high school and valued the experience he gained at camps.

“When you’re in high school you really don’t know what you want to do in life,” Rocha said before adding that camps and programs such as the one at Gulf Coast give participants direction for their future.

Rocha, in his first year at Embry-Riddle, said he has learned that the demand for an employment base with knowledge of unmanned vehicles is there.

Jose Lopez-Vaquero, the program manager for the Unmanned Vehicles Systems at Gulf Coast, sees camps almost as a farm system for Gulf Coast.

According to Lopez-Vaquero, STEM camps have and are taking place throughout northwest Florida, with 1,200 students participating in those camps last year.

“The purpose of the program is to engage the high-schoolers or middle-schoolers and get the students to Gulf Coast,” Lopez-Vaquero said. “It’s local; they don’t have to travel to South Florida or out of the area. We can keep the skills local.”

Lopez-Vaquero also highlighted that drones can be more than a flying toy, with unmanned systems encompassing three facets, waterborne, land, and aerial.

“I try to expose them to the three areas,” Lopez-Vaquero said. “Maybe they are interested in ROVs for underwater, maybe they are more interested in land vehicles. It gives them the opportunity to see what is available to them.”

On the first day of the camp, the students participated in intense classroom training, including the newly installed federal regulations for drones.

The second day was full of hands-on training, leading to a third day where the children got to compete to show off their newly learned skills.

Roy Martinez, a military retiree, and student in Gulf Coast’s Unmanned Vehicles Systems program was on hand to help the students learn the ins and outs of unmanned vehicles.

Martinez, who has two young children of his own, said the kids, had a blast throughout the three-day camp while learning real-world skills.

“There’s things like risk assessments and things like teamwork,” Martinez said.

Martinez also highlighted that safety was the most important lesson of the course.

“There’s more than just pulling it out of the box and flying it,” Martinez said. “There are a lot of things you have to be careful of. You can actually hurt somebody.”

The main hallway of the Advanced Technology Center was turned into a drone challenge track last Thursday, with students flying the small air drones remotely through hula hoops hung at different heights, and obstacles hidden behind cover, being guided by a partner.

After lunch, the students made their way outside to get their hands on larger vehicles, including a land, air, and waterborne drones.

Mishelle Hidle, with PAEC, sees the camp as a way to get students of rural school districts immersed in education.

According to Hidle, PAEC works to find the funding and the workforce for educational camps and programs throughout the Panhandle serving 14 school districts.

“Our hope is that they will leave here wanting and being interested in the STEM projects,” Hidle said.

Hidle believes that the students gained valuable knowledge, all the while having fun.

“You can tell they did,” Hidle said. “The first day they get here and they’re still dragging because it’s really early and a long drive, but once they get to play with the drones and get to see what they get to do, they’re really having a good time.”

At the end of the day Hidle gave out completion certificates and urged the students to use the certificate on college applications.