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Drone Storytelling Course Brings Popular Technology into the Classroom

Zimmerman School of Advertising and Mass Communications teaches students how to responsibly operate drones and earn federal certifications

USF students practice operating drones on Fowler Field.


A new course offered at the University of South Florida is moving students out of the classroom and into the pilot’s seat, training them to use the latest tools in an ever-changing industry.

Drone photography and videography have quickly become staples for those who work in digital media, marketing, production and a slew of other fields. As the technology continues to improve, it’s become more accessible to professionals and amateurs alike. It was that fast rise into the mainstream that prompted Zimmerman School of Advertising and Mass Communications faculty to develop a new course designed to give students a leg up in this competitive business.

“I find value in the fact that we will graduate with a drone pilot certification. For video production professionals, that’s an immediate advantage in the field,” said USF senior Kody Hilburn. “Walking away with a diverse portfolio of work and experiences to show and build from is every student’s desire from their college. Drone Videography is definitely that for me.”

Hilburn is one of more than a dozen USF undergraduates enrolled in ‘Drone Videography/Aerial Storytelling’. The course, offered for the first time this semester, teaches students basic safety and legal regulations associated with the use of drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV). Students also learn videography techniques and how to utilize aerial footage in digital media storytelling.

Course instructor Ryan Watson says he designed the curriculum to give students a well-rounded understanding of how to responsibly operate drones and learn a skill that could translate into job opportunities.

“When I started putting this course together, I really wanted people to know that we are doing it for the right reasons and drones aren’t something you need to be alarmed about,” said Watson, who is also a graduate of USF. “This course really adds another dimension to what we’re able to provide our students. It’s really been great to be a part of.”

Instructor Ryan Watson reviews safety protocols during a weekly flight day.

In the field, students learn basic flying techniques like takeoff, hover and landing. Under Watson’s supervision, they also learn more advanced videography techniques that they’re able to incorporate into their video projects.

Along with the experience students gain during Flight Days, they spend just as much time in the classroom, learning the technical ins and outs of flying. As part of the course, students prepare for and take the Federal Aviation Administration’s Remote Pilot Certification test. This federal certificate gives videographers the legal authority to use drones for commercial purposes – a required credential for anyone planning to operate a drone professionally. Watson says 80 percent of his students passed the test on their initial attempt.

“It’s huge for future employers,” said Deanna Salt, another USF student enrolled in the course. “We can put these drone skills into wedding videography, video marketing, production agency work, news and so much more.”

It’s that direct impact on a student’s employment prospects that Watson says is so exciting about integrating emerging technologies into coursework. He says the Zimmerman School of Advertising and Mass Communications plans to continue offering the course and is looking to include it in the upcoming summer catalog.


Story by Aaron Hilf, University Communications and Marketing. Photos by Ryan Noone, University Communications and Marketing.

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