South Panola High School STEM efforts have come a long way in a short amount of time.

TSgt Rodney Williams, a retired Air Force Security Force Specialist and Lt Col Leonard Boothe, a retired Communications Officer, are now working as Air Force Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps (AFJROTC) instructors at South Panola High School in Batesville, Mississippi.  

TSgt Rodney Williams retired from active duty in 2019 and was employed at South Panola in 2020. TSgt Williams started both a robotics and drone Program in partnership with the Robotics Education & Competition Foundation in January 2021. Both programs are extra-curricular activities and are conducted primarily outside of normal school hours.  

Lt Col Leonard Boothe, an alumni of South Panola, retired in 2016 from the United States Air Force and was hired in February 2023 by South Panola School District as the Senior Aerospace Instructor.

How did you convince your students to try drones? 
We initially convinced students by talking to them about the use of coding, drones operations and robotics operation in both today’s and the future workforce. Many of our students were hesitant at first but as they began to work with the drones, they saw their progress and started to believe that they were capable of not only piloting the drones, but also competing. Once the program was up and running, we had our team set up at recruiting events. This allowed potential students to see the drones and play with them in a non-threatening environment. After our cadets showed them how the drones operated, the instructors had a conversation with the students to convince them to join the program for at least one semester. If they liked the program they would remain. If they did not they could enroll in another extracurricular activity the following semester. 

How did these students make the leap to VEX programming and participating in VRC (VEX Robotics Competition) events? 
Since South Panola does not have computer programming or coding classes, VEX V5 block programming was the obvious choice. TSgt Williams told the cadets they would learn the same they learned coding. TSgt Williams and the cadets learned coding from watching YouTube videos and by trial and error. It allowed our students to teach and motivate themselves the basics of programming and coding. 

What does the South Panola student population look like? 
The South Panola School District has a student population of approximately 1,200 students with about 275 students in the senior class. The graduation rate is 85% versus the average graduation rate of 88% of other schools in Mississippi. The vast majority of South Panola High School students qualify for the free lunch program. The makeup of the student population is approximately 60% Black, 35% White and 5% other. Some of the students will further their education at local community colleges or universities. Others will enter the job market and several will work at local retail stores or factories.

What is the most challenging aspect of the program? 
Our greatest challenges were that the staff had neither expertise in robotics nor did the school have coding/programming classes. Additionally, this is an extracurricular activity; therefore, there is no dedicated time for robotics during the school day. Students work on building, programming, and practice after school.

Like most extracurricular activities, funding is a huge obstacle and challenge. The program has received grants from the Tennessee Valley Authority, an organization that supports robotics across the 7 state region known as the Tennessee Valley. The team also used fundraisers and Air Force ROTC funding to support the team equipment and travel.

Some of your students are inexperienced travelers. How do they react when venturing outside of their community to attend REC Foundation competitions?
Many of our students have never been outside of Mississippi nor compete in a major competition. Watching them win their first competition and listening to the excitement in their voices as South Panola was called as the 1st Place winners was uplifting for us all. Traveling to other states and witnessing new experiences has been extremely rewarding for both our students and staff. Things that most of us take for granted, such as eating in a restaurant, may be a first time experience for some of our cadets.

How does precision building and teamwork required to successfully navigate competition dovetail with the values that JROTC hopes to instill? 
Building a Robotics Team for competing meshes perfectly with several core JROTC values. Each day, our cadets recite the JROTC Creed, which reads; “I earn respect when I uphold the core values of Integrity First, Service Before Self and Excellence in All We Do.” These three core values teach our students to do the right thing, even when no one is looking, that being a part of a team is bigger than you and always do your best.

We also teach cadets lessons from our Leadership Education Course 200 so they learn about communication, communicating effectively, developing vision and teamwork, solving conflicts and problems, and leadership model and adaptive leadership. Cadets were able to form a team and become better leaders both in and outside of the program. 

Finally, tell us about some of your successes with regards to STEM and robotics.
South Panola AFJROTC Program is making national noise in the area of STEM. The STEM program has amassed an impressive list of accomplishments in the state of Mississippi and across the country. These accomplishments include Judge Awards, Innovate Awards, Programming Skill Awards, Flight Crew Awards, and multiple Tournament Championships. 

South Panola ranked number one in the world in drone programming skills in their division in 2022. In 2023, the AFJROTC program continued to show impressive results. In the 2022-2023 tournament season, South Panola dominated their competitors, winning four Drone Tournament Championships. In their most recent competition, the South Panola High School’s Autonomous Ops Drone Team traveled to Baton Rouge, LA to compete in East Baton Rouge’s JROTC Drone Competition. They competed against the best JROTC drone programs in Louisiana and Texas and brought home six of eight awards: The Excellence Award (Team C), Tournament Champion (Team B and Team C), Autonomous Flight Skill Champion (Team C), Programming Award (Team A) Inspired Award (Team B). Because of these victories, South Panola competed at the REC Foundation Aerial Drone Competition Regional Championship. 

In fact, the program has captured the attention of WISPRs, a drone manufacturer company in the state of Mississippi and the second largest drone company in the United States. Co-founder and President, Conor Ferguson visited the program in February 2023 and also provided the students a look at new drone technologies. During the visit, Mr. Ferguson pledged his support to the South Panola School District’s STEM program. Mr. Ferguson will support and mentor the team next year as they compete for the first time in the REC Foundation’s Bell Advanced Vertical Robotics Competition. Cadets use hands-on, industry-standard tools to design, build, and compete against teams from around the US with the most advanced aerial robotics and ground robotics technology available today.  

The Robotics Team is ranked #12 in Robotic Skills in Mississippi. 

The Drone and Robotics teams were recently selected to participate in the REC Foundation Aerial Drone Competition in Houston, April 13-17, 2023 and VEX VRC JROTC National Championship in Dallas, TX April 26-30, 2023.