STEM Learning Takes Flight with Drones - ASCD
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February 14, 2019

STEM Learning Takes Flight with Drones

Technology continues to alter the educational landscape. Whether it be virtual reality, coding languages, or 3D printing, a slate of tools exist to prepare students for future careers. But the common question educators face is how best to harness these technologies for student learning. At Pocomoke Middle School in Maryland, where I teach, we are digging deeper into the digital unknown with an unconventional curriculum: drones.

To give our 21st century learners (who are in grades 4–8) foundational skills in aeronautics, coding, and problem solving, I initiated a drone after-school program in 2016 with the help of funding from ASCD's Emerging Leaders Innovation Grant. When I first pitched the idea to my after-school administrator, she gave me an odd look. As an English teacher, I had no prior experience with drones. But I had read about the skills they could help students develop in Scholastic magazine.

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Several administrators gave me the go-ahead—but only if I was willing to play a key role in the process of developing the club. I used the following strategies to create and sustain an after-school drone program:

1. Make the program available to everyone.

A truly engaging program must be offered to all students. In my Title I school, many students would not have other opportunities to fly a drone. The program exposes them to worlds they didn't know existed. For six to eight weeks, a group of our middle school students meet once a week after school to explore aeronautics concepts and fly drones in our cafeteria. First, we explore physical components, basic vocabulary, and coding of drones. We watch drone obstacle courses and races to brainstorm ideas for students' own courses before physically building them. Then, students test-run and race drones through peers' obstacle courses. The activities hit numerous math and science standards and allow students to explore potential STEM career options.

As students test ideas, they work through trial and error, displaying grit and perseverance as failures become successes. The club is now one of the most popular after-school activities and often has a waiting list for the coming year. We also offer a shorter version of the program to our elementary school students to build their excitement for STEM.

2. Integrate across content areas.

Facilitating the program began as a solo job, but I needed help from colleagues to support students' development. Math teachers assist in creating scale drawings and connect the work to math terminology and standards, including converting measurements into customary units of length. Measurements need to be exact to balance the student-created structures; a miscalculation or incorrect cut can set a group back in their creation.

Teachers with technical building backgrounds volunteer their time to support students' creativity as they build their obstacle courses, tackling the design process and physical construction using PVC piping and hula hoops. They add turbulence with box fans and find solutions for obstacle entrances or exits that are too small or obstacles that jam propellers.

To incorporate language arts, students break down informational texts focusing on the history of drones and their warfare capabilities. In one lesson, we measured the area of a famous battle and recreated the warzone to scale using red solo cups, then walked through the battle with drones. These additions of mathematics and English strengthen students' background knowledge as they begin to work on their drone courses.

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3. Find community partners.

It's necessary to get feedback from experts in the field. Before we began our drone program, terminology like pitch, quadcopter, gimbal, and throttle was foreign to me and to students. After researching other programs, I knew it was imperative that students memorize aeronautic terminology before putting drones in the air.

We partnered with Sentinel Robotics' educational division, an aeronautics company that has contracts with our local NASA Wallops Flight Facility, to get insight into terminology that we were using incorrectly and improve curriculum. The company offers students field trips to its lab to see aeronautical equipment in action.

In addition, we invite parents and other experts to see what students are working on. One expert asked whether we'd ever built drones from scratch. That simple question led us to research the types of drones students could build. Though we currently buy our drones from a distributor, we hope to eventually allow students to build their own.

Another expert from a nearby university recommended more coding for our program. We now utilize the Tynker coding app, which offers a free Drones 101 course for one year when purchasing Parrot Mambo drones. During the basic coding portion of our program, students learn to think like programmers, controlling and maneuvering drones with code alone.

4. Show off students' accomplishments.

Find opportunities to highlight students' accomplishments in the greater school community and across the state. Our program was previously funded by a 21st Century Community Learning Centers grant and had a third-party evaluator who visited the program. During site visits, we allowed students to vote on the best obstacle courses and have teams of students explain the components and thinking behind their creations. Once students adjusted to these smaller visits, we took our show on the road. Last year, I traveled with six students to Common Ground, a regional technology conference for educators, to showcase our program. It was an eye-opener for students to speak in a large conference room and teach educators from all over Maryland how to fly drones.

With the right programming, funding, and support for educators in place, students can work with drones and get a taste for the careers of tomorrow.

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