Holden Daugherty just wanted to build a drone.
As it turned out, building a flying robot from scratch with parts from Amazon and area RC shops turned into a roller coaster of small successes and spectacular failures — but a few weeks ago, Daugherty and Assistant Computer Science Professor Josh Montgomery’s class at Southern State Community College in Hillsboro ventured out on a brisk October evening to witness the drone’s first successful flight.
The computer science students dove for cover as Daugherty’s small aircraft whizzed into the night air, and after a less-than-smooth landing — the sound of the machine’s landing gear snapping was immediately followed by a few audible cringes — Daugherty’s classmates cheered.
Daugherty was careful to point out that the outdoor flight was more successful than the drone’s first test flight in the school atrium, during which the craft rocketed down a hallway and exploded, sending plastic pieces flying. Daugherty, chuckling, said that was definitely a failure.
But in Montgomery’s class, failure isn’t where you stop — it’s where you start.
In fact, it’s part of the rubric.
Montgomery, who gained some notoriety last year when he built an exact replica of the beloved “Star Wars” droid R2-D2, told The Times-Gazette that he has learned nearly all of his most valuable lessons through failure, and he wants to give his students an opportunity to do the same thing.
Montgomery said he tasked his students with constructing computer science projects using Raspberry Pi computers for their midterm and final projects, and built a rubric to grade them.
The idea took off like Daugherty’s drone — and it’s still flying.
“The type of engagement I have had far exceeds what I’ve given them,” Montgomery said. “I’m really just pushing… prodding, guiding.”
Some students like Daugherty shot for the sky, and Montgomery said he watched, amazed as the projects began to take shape. Throughout the process, he said, students reached out to each other for help and celebrated each others’ failures.
“We’re all failing together,” Montgomery said.
Levi Burns and Ricardo Nevarez Jr., who both built two-way interactive mirrors, said the projects seemed fairly simple and didn’t require a lot of fancy technology, but they both hit walls along the way. But they kept working, and now, the mirrors display time, local weather and other information through two-way glass.
Mike Hyer built an apparatus that reads the weather at his home in Ashville, Ohio, and sends the information to his own WordPress server. When Hyer was interviewed, he said he was struggling with a few glitches in his software, but the struggle was worth it. He said his next step was to add a timelapse camera to the apparatus.
Montgomery said he hopes to see all of his students gain the confidence to try unconventional projects and approaches through repeated failure — and learn to embrace those failures as part of the road to success.
When Montgomery showed a video of the drone’s first crash landing in class, Daugherty’s classmates gave him another round of applause. Daugherty proudly said he broke at least 30 propellers in the building process, and that was just the hardware.
When Montgomery was asked why he chooses to stay in the Highland County area rather than taking his ideas to larger schools, he said Southern State has a special place in his heart as his alma mater, and that he wants to “provide some hope” for students in an area where career options can be limited.
“Just because you’re from Appalachian Ohio doesn’t mean you can’t do something great,” Montgomery said.
Between now and “great,” Montgomery’s students hear their professor constantly telling them, as he often tells himself when the going gets rough, “You can get there. You can get there. Push, push, push.”
One project by Nevarez and another student, Mary Mundt, is currently on display in the atrium at Hillsboro’s SSCC campus — a Christmas tree featuring lights that blink to the tune of popular melodies. Montgomery said his favorite tune is the “Star Wars” theme.
Reach David Wright at 937-402-2570.