FORT WALTON BEACH — From elementary to high school, students in Okaloosa County are learning not only how to fly drones, but how to code and program them.
About 100 students took their knowledge to the next level Saturday by participating in a drone team competition hosted by the Hsu Education Foundation at Total Parts Plus Inc. in the Fort Walton Beach Commerce and Technology Park.
Amanda Negron, the foundation's executive director, said the program began last fall to serve as a platform to educate children of all ages about Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) and the opportunity for jobs in science , technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).
"The applications for these technologies are only just emerging," Negron said. "What the jobs will look like in association with these technologies 10 years from now may not even be known.
"Our program is meant to expose and inspire them to pursue STEM, as these are the careers of greatest demand," she added.
Brian Mitchell, the Air Force Research Lab's STEM outreach coordinator who works for the chief scientist at Eglin Air Force Base, said the need for children to become scientists is there, which is why he helped the Hsu Education Foundation bring the program to Okaloosa County.
"This is absolutely critical," Mitchell said of the drone competition. "If you take just the need we have at the Air Force Research Lab to continue to grow our pipeline of scientists and engineers, these kind of things are exactly what it takes to get kids excited and to keep them excited about STEM so they start to envision this as a degree path, as a career path."
Mitchell said this competition and program is different from others because it teaches students how to program drones to fly a set course.
During Saturday's competition, teams with help from a teacher or parent coach worked together to compete in five missions.
Negron said the competition was designed to allow each student express his or her strengths in different areas. Whether coding, flying drones merely through programming or leading the drones through a course, the students always had something to do.
The program is paid for through an Air Force grant, which keeps money from coming out of parents' pockets, Negron said.
Paul Hsu, a 40-year engineer and local resident, came up with the idea about five years ago.
After speaking with Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduate students in Boston about entrepreneurship, Hsu, a first-generation immigrant from Taiwan, said he realized a small percentage of students in the United States understood the opportunity for jobs in science and technology.
"I just want to have a way to lead the kids to the water," Hsu said. "Let them know what the future looks like. Let them know that there are good-paying jobs, exciting jobs (in science)."
For more information about programs like the drone teams and summer camps, visit www.hsu-foundation.org.