Drones Take Flight as Latest K–12 Learning Tool

This innovative technology is quickly finding a home in schools willing to push the limits of STEM learning.

Predicting the future is notoriously difficult. The New Media Consortium, which publishes its annual “Horizon Report for K-12” previewing the technologies likely to impact education in the coming five years, forecast back in 2015 that by 2019, we would see drones playing a role in education. 

The future has swooped in early: We’re already seeing drones being added to the mix of teaching tools that educators are using to help bring STEM to life in their classrooms. And while schools are coming to drones from a variety of directions, they are all finding that this technology offers learning opportunities for students that touch on every part of their curriculums.

MORE FROM EDTECH: Check out how K–12 students are using drones to tackle complex problems. 

Drone Competition Creates Fun STEM Opportunity

For the Young Women’s Leadership Academy in Fort Worth, Texas, the introduction of drones into the school came by way of the Bell Drone Competition. Sergio Flores, the school’s competitive engineering coach, signed up his school and joined five other schools in the area to compete in this 2018 event sponsored by Bell Helicopter, an aircraft manufacturer whose headquarters are in Fort Worth.

“From the kickoff event in April, where we learned exactly what we’d need to do, to the competition itself, it was only six weeks,” says Flores. “We had the box of drone parts and the dimensions of what we’d need to construct. Once we got back to the school, we planned out how we were going to tackle this challenge and broke off into teams to work on the different events. There was lots of trial and error.”

This is not the first challenge that Flores has presented his competitive engineering team. It regularly participates in several different competitions, including ones for robotics and solar cars. “Our goal is to get the girls interested in as many different types of engineering challenges as we can — whether in the air, on the land or in the sea,” says Flores.

Challenges Make Engineering More Exciting

Most of the girls had never worked with a drone before. For the competition, they had to design and put together the drone itself, along with programming the motors and the servos. It was up to the team to figure out the best design for each of the competition’s events

One such event was the Wimbledon Challenge, which involved picking up tennis balls with the drone and then dropping them into a basket. Another event was a search-and-rescue mission using the camera on the drone to navigate an obstacle-filled landscape. Each event presented its own unique engineering challenges. 

While the team did not win the competition, its members gained a great deal from their work with the drones. “For the girls, the big takeaway was the teamwork it took — working in groups, collaborating on ideas and coming up with a solution,” says Flores. “We worked through the entire engineering process, defining the challenge, specifying the requirements, brainstorming solutions, building prototypes, testing and redesigning. I’m proud of our team.”

PRODUCT REVIEW: The DJI Phantom 4 Pro+ drone offers unique opportunities for students and teachers. 

Schools Adjust Curriculums to Include Drones

Dripping Springs Independent School District, located in Dripping Springs, Texas, arrived at drones by way of a parent. The district, which had been applying a STEM curriculum in its schools for six years, had grown comfortable with using innovative technology in its classrooms. 

Makerspaces were available in each of the schools; Ozobots and Spheros were a common sight rolling across classroom floors. It was hard to see where else the district could go with technology in the classroom.

Then, four years ago, Marisa Vickery, facilitator of learning and innovation for the district, was approached by a parent who is a software engineer and was interested in working with students on building a drone. To take it a step further, the students would make the drone parts themselves.

“We completed the project over a few months, with the kids 3D-printing the parts,” recounts Vickery. “Then, with the help of parents, we soldered and wired the drones, all very hands-on stuff. We programmed them and used a flight simulator that allowed each student to learn to use the remote control to finally fly the drone.”

As drones grew in popularity and came down in price, Vickery realized they could become a regular part of the district’s STEM program. Around this time, the same parent saw an opportunity to build an app that would make it easy to program the drones. He created DroneBlocks, a drag-and-drop block programming app that’s available for free for both iOS and Android devices. 

“We then built a curriculum around drones,” says Vickery. “For some classes, teachers may use a drone for flying as an incentive or for basic coding practice, while others have the students plot out equations, using the drones to study math. We also did one drone lesson for student writing. The drones really open up student interest, and there are so many applications for them across our curriculum.”

How Teachers Can Get Comfortable with Drones

While DSISD has a longstanding openness to using technology in its classrooms, there are still challenges to getting it into students’ hands. Not all teachers have the same level of comfort with technology and working it into their lesson plans. 

“Part of my job is planting seeds, suggesting where we can promote and utilize drones across our district,” says Vickery. “Just getting teachers to bring this into the classroom, the initial first step, can be difficult and can feel out of their skill set. However, when they see how easy it can be to integrate, they open up to it. Teachers then begin to feel empowered after that initial lesson and seeing the excitement of their students.” 

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Drones Prepare Students for a STEM Future

The use of drones in Golf School District 67 in Morton Grove, Illinois, stems, in part, from Classrooms First, an initiative driven by Niles Township High Schools District 219, the local high school district that district 67 feeds into. This initiative provides support to local elementary districts to help prepare students for high school and college. 

“We provide each grade with coding and robotics opportunities appropriate for each level throughout our district,” explains Steven Shadel, executive director of K-12 STEM and literacy for district 219. “We make a point to change up the platforms and technologies we use each year. We want students to be able to adapt to technology’s changes. It’s what they will see as they move forward in their education and careers.”

With that support, district 67 teachers have found some innovative ways to work drones into lesson and curriculums. For example, third-grade students at the district’s Hynes Elementary School recently used drones to learn about agriculture and the weather in a lesson called “Farmer Grady.” 

“We set up a fake orchard in the classroom,” explains Katharine Casleton, who teaches the third grade. “The students use Chromebooks to do block coding with the Tynker platform. They walk through their code, then they trial their code, flying the drones, to see if it is successful. They can then make modifications if needed, redesign the code, then test again. We talk about the engineering process throughout all of this.”

Where Do Drones Fit into the Curriculum?

Casleton is the STEM leader for her grade at Hynes, putting her on the front lines of working drones into the curriculum. 

“I never worked with coding or drones until I introduced them into the classroom with our STEM program. I try new things out, seeing what works and what doesn’t — and not everything works. As a STEM leader, I’m open to experiencing failure in my teaching, reflecting on that failure and sharing with my teammates what we’re doing.” 

A big part of her role as STEM leader is discovering ways to relate the coding and the technology to the lessons in the curriculum. This can be a challenge, given the government mandates that drive much of the focus on what students are taught. “The hours in school are limited,” explains Shadel, “so teachers like Katharine need to figure out where to fit in robotics and drones and coding into a very tight schedule. The only way to do that is merging it into what we’re already teaching. We don’t have any choice but to integrate the tech into what we’re teaching in the curriculum.”

JOIN THE CONVERSATION: Follow @edtech_k12 on Twitter and tell us how you are using drones in your curriculum.

Support Teachers Through STEM Training

To help make that happen, the STEM leaders in district 67 are given multiple tiers of support. “We have embedded job training such as lunch and learns or on-site team meetings,” says Shadel. “We encourage them to take risks and teach something over the summer that they might be interested in bringing into the classroom in the fall, letting them work out all the kinks and firm up their teaching plans, and we provide coaching opportunities that occur outside the classroom as well.”

The biggest challenge for Casleton has been time. “Using the drones is something that I could spend an entire week on, and I only have two or three days to work with them. We just brush the surface, and I’d love to have more opportunities for them to change their code or to offer more challenging flights for them. The kids are really excited about the drones. It brings something different to the typical learning situation.”

Steve Debenport/Getty Images
Nov 30 2018