What Drone Technology Can Teach Students

If you’re like most people, you think of drones in a military or even in a police context. It’s no wonder why, really, when they most often appear in news reports on the heels of a drone strike we’ve carried out in another country,  when discussing drone monitoring or policing programs, or in exploring the many safety hazards they bring with them. This makes it easy to view drones in a negative or at least a violent light.

But drones, just like all technology, are themselves neither good nor evil. Rather, it’s all in how we use them. Given the right context and guidance, drones can make a creative tool for learning, creativity, and experimentation.

There are, of course, many potential liabilities in using drones within an educational sphere, most pressing of which have to do with safety and liability. Another real issue even for hobbyists is the expense, which may require a grant or a campaign on GoFundMe or DonorsChoose.org to solve.

Still, drones are the future and the future is now. For a moment, let’s suspend some disbelief and any larger concerns, so we can look at the creative teaching potential inherent in this technology.

Don McCullough drone & moon

Image by Don McCullough via Flickr Creative Commons

12 Creative Ways to Use Drones for Learning

1. Make Your Own Drone

First and foremost, one of the best ways to use drones in the classroom is to have students design and build their own, whether in a robotics club, in shop class, or as a class project. There aren’t a lot of options for buying cheap kits at the moment, but keep your eyes peeled, as the cost of such kits will inevitably come down over time.

Making drones in a school club or even just studying models online will teach key lessons about:

  • Robotics: One of the most obvious and direct areas that drones can teach students about is robotics. This in itself is useful not just in learning principles of say, mechanical actuators or electrical systems, but in honing the analytical thinking skills needed to understand how many different disciplines function together to make a single system work – and then, to make multiple systems work together. In many ways, this is the basis for thinking about programming and bigger logic problems, as it requires “If, then” kind of thinking, i.e. “If I do this, this event happens.” For students who may eventually want to become engineers, this kind of mental play is exactly what’s needed – all the more so as engineers are increasingly required to become Jacks of all Trades with certain specialty areas, rather than technical experts in a limited field.
  • Math: A basic knowledge of trigonometry can be essential in learning how to design and operate drones. At an even higher level, STEM educator, Matthew Schroyer suggests, drones can be used to teach concepts like Bernoulli’s principle as students learn how to predict things such as stall speed. This then leads into a host of lessons in other disciplines, like…
  • Electronics: As students wire up their microcontroller, they’ll also be learning basic principles of electronics, which they will be able to use widely as they tinker and Make. Students will also learn about electricity as they come to understand the way electric motors operate, which in turns leads to lessons in…
  • Chemistry: Students must learn about battery chemistry and capacity in order to truly understand drone design and function.
  • Programming: Drones are controlled via a microcontroller that must be programmed. As such, building drones can be a great opportunity to learn programming skills. What’s more, because the microcontroller uses open-source hardware and software, students can experiment with hacking the microcontroller to do, well, whatever they can dream up. We’ve covered one such idea in our piece about creative ways to use iPads, in which we suggested turning tablets into drone remote controls.
  • Perseverance and Hands-On Experience. In talking with an aeronautical engineer for this article, he emphasized that everything in engineering is an approximation of the real world. That means that it’s not uncommon for a theoretical plan to fail when it’s fully realized, whether that be in the form of a drone that crashes or a bridge that collapses. Failure like this, especially when it comes to hands-on learning experiences, teaches character and perseverance. Because failure is inevitable at some point, it becomes a real point of learning and inquisitive investigation as the students asks, “Why did my fool proof plan not work?” It takes bravery for the student to move forward and to continually put him or herself out there with an open mind. And it just so happens that this is the very attitude that makes great learners far beyond the drone tinkering station.

Convinced of the educational power of building drones? You might want to start with a kit like the RobotLabs Box, which comes with a drone and other robots, along with a remote control tablet and 50 ready-made STEM lessons to link the technology with the curriculum.

If you need an example to convince parents, administrators, and possibly other teachers of the worthiness of your proposed drone program, take a look at what they’ve done in Maryland, New Jersey, and France.

Okay, now that your students have learned all that they can from designing and building their own drones, how else can they be used in the classroom?

2. Survey School Land

Drones are often used to survey land. Farmers use drones to survey their crops. Environmentalists use drones to monitor wildlife. Even real estate agents use drones to capture the layout and look of a property.

If your school has a community garden, students can use their drones to monitor the health of plants or suggest good planting patterns. Building a new on-property shed? A student-built drone can scour the property for the best spot. Looking to teach a lesson about the local landscape? Attach a Go Pro to your drone, and capture the landscape as it changes throughout the seasons, either through video or through time-lapse photography. What better way to show your students what you mean when you refer to “strata”than by shooting drone video of your local canyon, gorge, or blasted rock? The possibilities are really endless.

3. Weave a Tensile Structure

Yep, you read that right. Researchers in Zurich have used drones to weave tensile structures. Have students design their tensile structure in a CAD program, research the best material, and let the drones have at it!

Don McCullough cow vs drone

Image by Don McCullough via Flickr Creative Commons

4. Monitor Natural Disasters

When natural disasters strike, it is often difficult or even impossible to get eyes on the ground. Drones unlike land vehicles won’t be bothered by broken up roads or hard to reach terrain, and are easier to maneuver, more versatile, and far less expensive than traditional aircraft.

What does this mean for the classroom? If you’re a student in Greenon High School in Dayton, Ohio, it means you can participate in natural disaster exercises, surveying a computer-simulated natural disaster and proposing evacuation routes. Students begin by modeling their own school before moving into more worldly simulations, which gives the exercise both relevance and global importance.

5. Shoot Video for a School Project

Drones are being used just about everywhere in Hollywood these days to capture everything from explosions to chase scenes to those wide, breathtaking landscapes. Why not have students do the same for a video project? They could use drones to shoot video reenactment of a famous historical battle. You could even take a video-enabled drone along for an outdoor field trip to capture every moment from up above.

6. Lead a Treasure Hunt

Treasure hunts can be a fun and effective learning tool, whether you’re having students track T-rex footprints during your dinosaur unit, or you’re keeping them on the lookout for important landmarks on your big city field trip. Adding a drone into the mix will give students an extra set of eyes and will layer in even more fun.

7. Navigate a Drone Obstacle Course  

For students who have fallen in love with their drones and are considering becoming drone pilots as a career, a drone obstacle course is a great way to learn the finer aspect of flying. Make it a competition by adding in tasks for the drones to do along the way, and see who gets to the end first.

8. Make Art

Drones are versatile because you can attach so many different kinds of objects and tools to them. This includes paintbrushes and paint. Lay a sheet out on the grass, attach paintbrushes, have students lower their drones into paint buckets, and then hover, splash, and air drop paint the whole afternoon through. If you like the results, you could also paint a mural this way, either on a school wall or on the pavement.

9. Learn About Our Environment in Real Time

Drones are already being used by environmental scientists to measure air quality and test for pollutants. This means drones are a great learning tool for bringing atmospheric science to life. Attach your measuring tools, fly that drone up into the clouds, and see what you can find.

10. Debate the Ethics

As we noted in the beginning, drones don’t come without controversy. Rather than skirting this reality, embrace it full-on for a formal debate unit. You could have students debate directly over drones themselves, pondering questions about what their role in our future society should be. Or you could broaden the debate to technology in general, prompting students to consider carefully the many good and bad uses of technology, and our responsibility to use it wisely.

11. Brainstorm Alternative Uses

Brainstorming the many ways one object or technology can be used is a classic test of creativity. As you can see from this list, the possibilities for putting drones to practical use are limited only by the human imagination (and if you’re futurist Thomas Frey, not even by that). As such, drones can be used to powerful effect to nudge students into the kind of creative and innovative thinking they’re going to need in the rapidly changing workplace of today. Such an exercise will also be a needed break within an increasingly assessment-obsessed classroom.

In Short

There’s no doubt that we are at the very beginning of the drone era. Like many new technologies with high potential, that can seem both scary and exciting. The technology is coming, and it’s up to us to help students understand it, make use of it, and hopefully, find peaceful, creative, and functional ways to put it to great use.


Do you see potential for using drones in the classroom? Let us know in the blog comments or by connecting with us on Twitter!

 

 

 

3 Comments

  1. Colin Grimes

    October 28, 2015 at 9:06 am

    I have used a drone in the classroom to great effect. The idea that we can use maths/computing outcomes to problem solve then program a drone to carry out a task was incredible to watch. This cements the idea of maths concepts having a real-life application and also encourages students to experiment with maths to come up with solutions.

  2. Kid Programmer

    October 30, 2015 at 8:52 am

    Hello!
    We used the drone for kids learn to programming, see here:

    http://www.programarabrincar.com/

    It’s a huge success!

  3. Jadeyn V

    February 1, 2016 at 12:51 am

    I never would’ve thought that using drone technology would even be possible to use in the classroom let alone that it would have so many different uses in teaching children different skills. I also find it particularly interesting how drone technology can demonstrate a vast majority of skills from a range of subject areas such as math using problem solving skills, science and skills the students can take with them to use in the real world!