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ADDA graduates first class on the cusp of global pandemic

ADDA grad students
Students at the African Drone and Data Academy in Lilongwe, Malawi, showcase their drones. Photo by Shittu Dhikrullah.

Twenty-five African youth from nine countries made history on March 18, 2020. They became the first graduates of the African Drone and Data Academy (ADDA), thanks to a joint educational effort between Virginia Tech and UNICEF that provides students with drone, data, and entrepreneurship skills.

Yet,  as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic the graduation was not the typical ceremony.

Brianna Friedman, a Virginia Tech master’s student in mechanical engineering and instructor at the academy, was in Malawi at the time of the graduation. She said, “I didn’t realize the extent of the virus until I talked to my parents back in the states. We started to realize that it would affect the student cohort.”

More than 200 people were expected to attend the graduation, including graduates’ families, local and international media, and representatives from UNICEF, Virginia Tech, and drone companies.

Friedman noted, “The graduation had to be scaled back. Parents could no longer attend, and most media livestreamed the ceremony.” Representatives from many organizations could not attend due to travel restrictions, including other Virginia Tech representatives.

The graduation ceremony was modified as a result of the pandemic, according to Friedman. “We didn’t shake hands. Instead of sitting in rows, all tables were circular to keep people further apart.”

Friedman and local project manager Brian Kamamia joined UNICEF and Malawian governmental and educational partners in awarding certificates in drone technology to the students. Each student also received an international drone operator certificate as well as a Malawi “authority to fly,” the equivalent to a remote pilot license until the government officially adopts its drone regulations.

ADDA female grads with drones
Female graduates showcase a drone they built during the certificate program. More than half of the inaugural class included women with undergraduate degrees in science, technology, or engineering.

According to Kevin Kochersberger, associate professor of mechanical engineering who leads the project, “It is disappointing that we cannot roll into the next class to meet a goal of 98 graduates by the end of 2020, but UNICEF remains committed to the project and I’m hopeful we will meet the target by mid-2021.”

He continued, “We are pleased that several graduates have already found jobs. Two graduates were hired to help improve courses and to support a drone business incubator. Other students have taken on new roles in  positions in their respective countries.”

Friedman left Malawi after the graduation as a result of the pandemic, but not before helping the team establish incubator space for companies and students to collaborate on innovative uses of drones such as flood mapping and disaster preparation. A team of five part-time employees is preparing for the next class of students and providing support for the incubator and flight operations.

Both Kochersberger and Friedman are members of TEAM Malawi, a group of Virginia Tech professors, students, and community partners from multiple disciplines that addresses community health and quality of life challenges in Malawi through technology, education, advocacy, and medicine (TEAM).