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Charting New Heights For Drone Programs in Academia: Meet Lead Drone Educator, Scott Thompson

BY Isabella Lee
31 August 2018

When trying anything new, the first attempt is rarely a success. The first time educators at Cochise College in Arizona tried to develop a UAS degree program, it didn’t turn out the way they hoped. In 2013, they launched an associate’s degree program to prepare students to safely and effectively operate UAS for commercial uses. Five years later, the program was discontinued due to a lack of interest from students and is no longer offered as of the 2018-2019 school year.

It was unclear why the program failed to garner interest until drone pilot and educator, Scott Thompson, and fellow colleague Barbara Richardson, Assistant Dean for Outreach for Cochise College, pointed out that the collegiate program set the requirements too high compared to the requirements for certification outside academia.

Cochise JTED Drone Program

Unlike studying for the FAA Part 107 exam, which according to our students takes an average of 10-15 hours, the Cochise drone program involved the completion of a two-year associate’s program. So while the federal government only required about a month of preparation and administration to become certified, Cochise was asking for two years.

“That was a lot for somebody to do,” said Scott. “You’re talking 60 credits taking English, and math, and all the general education requirements on top of the core drone classes.”

The faculty at Cochise handed Scott and his colleagues the reigns, and they ran with them—completely overhauling the existing program’s structure. Barbara Richardson proposed they restructure the program as a certificate program and Scott designed the course curriculum with the help of Tina Gudvangen of the Cochise Technology District and many others at Cochise. The new program cut down on the time required to complete the program and reached a new group of students—high schoolers. With the restructured program, high school students can take four college-level courses to become certified drone pilots and gain experience flying drones in their own community.

Scott is a former Army unmanned aircraft operator and has trained many military and civilian students on unmanned aircraft systems (UAS). He has over 16 years of experience in UAS operations and UAS education. Most recently, he’s been developing an academic drone program for Arizona high school students. We sat down with Scott to learn how he designed the program and to hear what he hopes to achieve by teaching high school students about UAS.

Begin Interview

The academic drone program you currently run was initially structured as an associates degree program. Why did you and your colleagues decide to change it to a certificate program for high school students?

They [the students] wanted to get out there and get into it. They want to get their certification, start working, and take advantage of the opportunities that are out there right now.

The associate program left a big gap in time efficiency. You had to enroll as a student at Cochise College, and then actually complete an entire two-year program to become a pilot.

What is the new program structure like?

It’s a 16-credit program that includes four four-credit courses.

The first course is an introductory course. In this course, the student learns the basics of what drones can do and how you can integrate them into certain industries. This foundational course creates an understanding of what drones are, how they serve the community, and how to apply them in different careers and industries.

The second course is a theory and application course. It prepares students to take the Part 107 exam. We also introduce some more advanced flight maneuvers. During practice flights, students engage in practical application of theory and flight maneuvers.

The third course teaches you how to use drones in videography and photography. Students learn the basics of setting up shots with the drone, what the best practices are, and then apply that knowledge by getting out and shooting actual photos and videos. By the time of the third course, the students will have their commercial license, so they can start to go out and actually do some work outside of the schools.

By the fourth class, our goal is to prepare them for an internship in the industry. We try to pair up these student pilots with an organization in the community or find a way for them to use their drones commercially to gain real world experience.

How did you come up with this structure? There aren’t many existing high school drone programs to replicate from.

Cochise College partnered with Arizona’s Department of Education, Career & Technical Education and our local Joint Technical Education District (JTED) to develop the original associate’s degree program. Together, they developed state standards for all Arizona sUAS programs. It’s pretty exciting, because Cochise Technology District is the only JTED to have developed and implement a standardized sUAS program so far.

[Editor’s Note: JTEDs are specialized school districts designed to deliver career and technical education (CTE) course offerings to secondary students in cooperation with school districts and charter schools in Arizona.]

So, I used the JTED standards and some of the existing structure from the associate’s program to develop the high school program. There was still a lot I had to do from scratch though, so then I used my existing experience and knowledge of unmanned aircraft instructional design and technology. I myself have been in the unmanned aircraft industry for a long time.

What experience did you have in the drone industry prior to teaching?

I was in Army as an unmanned aircraft operator for a couple years, then as a civilian I worked at Fort Huachuca, the UAS training center for military. They train the Hunter unmanned aircraft system, they train Gray Eagle, and they train Shadow unmanned aircraft systems. I trained both Hunter and Shadow unmanned aircraft systems to military and civilian students for quite a while.

After that, I went to Northrop Grumman where I worked as the test pilot on the Hunter system. Eventually I became their e-learning specialist, because I thought they had a gap in their e-learning capabilities. I got really involved in educational technology there and developed a mindset to offer remote possibilities for education. All of that experience carried over to what I’m doing now with Cochise College, JTED, and the local high schools.

What are the goals of the program?

My primary goal is to grow the program with the reputation for safety and competence. Right now we’re really only focusing on the high school students as a STEM program for three of the local high schools. My goal, personally, is to get them certified, make them competent at their job, and ensure that they’re safe, so they’re creating the reputation for the industry as a whole and for our local program that says we’re serious professionals.

As high school students, some just 16 years old, they can conduct a mission through your organization. That’s really empowering for our students. We want our students to get out there and do some work for the community that’s good.

Who is eligible to sign up for the program and take classes?

Right now we’re available to high school students at three schools: Buena, Benson, and Bisbee.

Since the UAS associate’s program has been discontinued at Cochise College, there is no program for college students at this time. It would be nice to offer college students and anybody in the community the opportunity to learn more about drones and expand their capabilities. So I’m pushing for that, but right now we’re just at the high school level.

Who teaches the classes?

There’s one lead teacher and multiple facilitators. As the lead teacher, I build the curriculum and send it out to the facilitators. The facilitators are high school teachers who are already embedded in and working in the schools. For example, at Buena High School, they have a photography and video teacher who also teaches our drone class. Then at Bisbee High School, we have a law enforcement teacher who also teaches the drone class. It’s a nice overlapping narrative of concepts and industries.

The facilitators are really necessary for the success of the program, because I can’t be at all these schools at the same time. I really lean on them to get the information out to the students and to manage the classroom well.

I meet with each class every Monday via video conferencing to give an overview of what we’re going to do that week. I also like to bring in some some current events to maintain their interest in the industry. Then the facilitators take it from there, completing the assigned lesson plans and activities with the students that week.

Bisbee High School Drone Program

Bisbee High School student pilots and their high school facilitator, Brian Cooley, pose with their drone equipment.

What has the response from students been like?

We’ve had a strong, positive response. At Buena we have 15 new students this semester. Then at Benson we have three returning students and 15 new students. We just added Bisbee High School, and we have a class of about 10 students there.

Some of our returning students will actually be getting their Part 107 certifications this semester, so that’s really exciting. The program is still new, so we haven’t had that chance to see what our students can do out there in the community, but the plans are there.

How do you apply for the program?

It’s what’s called a CTE program, a Career and Technical Education program sponsored by Cochise College. In a CTE program, the college will come to the high school and enroll students who are interested into the class. Cochise actually covers the cost of their credits, except for $20 per credit that the students have to put their skin in the game for. The fee helps Cochise provide each class with a drone, and the students can get a jump on college credits while still in high school.

Is there a benefit to exposing students to drone technology at a young age?

At 16 years old, they can make money as commercial operators. That’s the instant benefit to the program. There aren’t many industries that allow that kind of flexibility as a young person, as a student.

Another benefit is they’re being exposed to a technology that’s emerging. I kind of liken it to the smartphone. The smartphone became a prolific  tool for so many people, where they could do so many things with it. And I think that’s what drones are doing now, kind of in that same concept where they’re just offering so many services and their capabilities to different people and industries.

The next benefit is showing the student pilot how they can create solutions for their community. Locally, we have a huge agriculture industry. We have a lot of cattle ranchers and a lot of agriculture, so I frequently talk to them about drone applications in precision agriculture.

And most of all, here in a rural environment like ours, these students might not have access to this kind of UAS tech. So having access to the tech alone is a huge benefit that they might not otherwise have the opportunity for.

How will this program benefit your community at large?

I like to think about next semester or the end of the year when we’ll have approximately 40 to 45 students certified as remote pilots going out in the community and actually serving the community in different ways. To have that many certified remote pilots in one area is going to be really powerful. Through this program, our students have the potential to really grow the local drone industry and economy.


Scott Thompson is an alumnus of Drone Pilot Ground School.

If you’re interested in starting a drone program within your own work place, check out our Guide to Establishing a Professional Drone Program in Your Company. We’d also like to hear your thoughts on drone programs in academic settings, like the one we just learned about from Scott. Visit this thread on our community forum to tell us what you think.

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