Cobb program pairs girls with drones

Fly Girls instructor Alana Davis (right) leads members of the STEM club through an exercise to launch and land a drone.

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Fly Girls instructor Alana Davis (right) leads members of the STEM club through an exercise to launch and land a drone.

Riley Wilhoite is on an unusual mission for a 10-year-old. She’s examining roofs around her neighborhood, looking for cracks, storm damage or holes. But the goal for the Tritt Elementary student isn’t about spotting construction defects; it’s learning how to manipulate a drone.

Wilhoite is on assignment from Fly Girls, a group launched two years ago in Cobb County schools to help girls in grades four through eight explore the world of aerospace through drones. With initial funding from Lockheed Martin, students received training on Parrott Mambo mini drones and joined like-minded peers across the county in “missions” designed to master drones’ practical uses.

“We wanted to give young women the opportunity to see that drones are something they can do,” said Sally Creel, STEM and Innovation supervisor for Cobb schools. “At the same time, we’re working on college and career readiness, helping them understand what they can do with this in the future.”

One of Fly Girls’ first events in spring 2019 was held at Kennesaw Mountain High on the same day a state drone competition hosted about 100 young women from around Atlanta. Fly Girls interacted with peers from other school districts, attended a drone boot camp and watched a high school competition. Members of Cobb police and fire departments demonstrated how drones are used in different industries.

During last year’s gathering, Fly Girls met with representatives from the Construction Education Foundation of Georgia that showcased opportunities in that field. But now with COVID restrictions in place, the group has had to get more creative. About 50 Fly Girls have been managing missions remotely and uploading their findings to share.

“We don’t want to lose the momentum,” said Creel. “So we added cameras to the drones and had the CEO of Aerial Solutions talk about how her company took photos of the Mercedes-Benz stadium as it was being built to show its progress. In December, we paired with an insurance adjustor and gave them the rooftop challenge. Our next one will be with an environmental engineer who uses drones to study wetland areas, and we’ll send them out to capture footage of a wetland in their areas.”

Keeping that momentum is critical, said Creel, since research shows that by the time girls enter fourth grade, they’ve decided whether or not to stay involved with STEM initiatives.

“Our goal is to get to them early and show STEM is something they can have fun doing and have a career in, if they decide to,” she said. “And we plan to take the idea beyond Georgia: We’re currently partnering with the Pennsylvania Department of Education on a robotics program that uses our Fly Girls model.”

Wilhoite got involved with Fly Girls after her principal asked her to consider it, and the opportunity has given her a different outlook on her future.

“I enjoyed science class and excelled at it, but I never worked with drones,” she said. “Now I think I could actually have a career in construction or engineering using drones. And I hadn’t thought about a career like that before.”

Information about Fly Girls is online at

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