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.
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:
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?
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.