Teach Kids STEM with Drones

Where it all began

A college professor complained to me once that she couldn’t keep her students focused for more than ten minutes. Those were not little kids; we were talking about engineering students. She added that she always felt that she was competing for their attention with computer games and heavily animated media. It was a challenge that she clearly wasn’t winning.

My own experience with classrooms was a bit different. I volunteered several times in my kids’ classes to talk about technology and business.  I know that technology is intimidating. And when I asked the kids if they thought that they could become the next Steve Jobs or Elon Musk, they shook their heads. More often than not kids perceive engineers and scientists and designers as a different breed.

I told them stories about regular people who became larger than life celebrities of today. A particularly interesting story was that of William Harley and Walter Davidson, and how they founded the ultimate bikers’ dream when they were only fifteen years old. By the end of the presentation, I believe I did sway some of them into believing that they could take a shot at that ‘stuff’.

Despite the good intentions of teachers, students are still reluctant to dapple with the ‘brainy fields’. In the United States; only 16% of high school students said that they were willing to enroll in a tech course. Out of these around 60% changed their mind right after graduation. The figures are even grimmer for girls. Only 20% of engineers are women, with only 9% in managerial positions.

The kids are obviously not interested, and they need something to engage them, grab hold of their imagination, and tickle their curiosity.

Could a drone be it?

Why is STEM suddenly everywhere?

There’s actually a national day for STEMs! The United States has marked the 8th of November to encourage kids to explore more, and do fun things with math and science. Sounds lovely, doesn’t it?

The industry everywhere is changing at breakneck speed, and most of that change is fuelled by Science and Technology. It is no longer advancement or development, but rather disruption. The need for skilled people to manage all that is unfortunately much higher than the available graduates in the market.

This deficit has created a huge need for STEMS. Nowadays four out of the highest paying jobs are in Science, Technology, Engineering, or Math. It’s no surprise that parents are encouraging their kids to study STEMS. It is also quite convenient since the governments of sixty-five countries and all the major industries are cheering these efforts as well.

I was wondering who came up with that nice name STEMs. Very little research led me to the nice lady who coined the term. Judith A. Ramaley was the assistant director for education and human resources at the National Science Foundation from 2001 to 2004.

The acronym was previously SMET, but it was soon replaced by the much lighter form STEM.  She was pivotal in incorporating STEM subjects in school curriculum to catch up with the very rapidly changing world.

Which countries are the cleverest in STEM?

The United States considers itself the pioneer and trailblazer of science and technology. After all, they invented blue jeans and iPhone! Need we say more? However, it ranks pretty lower than the first place. Maybe that is one of the main motives that is fueling its effort in STEM education? 

The other countries that rank higher in the number of graduates per year, or per capita, in exam scores, and in the quality of graduates are China, India, South Korea, Germany, Japan, and Finland. 

It’s pretty obvious their industries are just as clever, their economies are happy, and it all starts at school.

Why drones?

A drone has it all: it’s a toy, a gadget, it is programmable, can easily be taken apart and rebuilt, and it can be bought from the shop next door.

But most of all; the kids love it!

It is also open to any suggestion, from the teachers or the students. The possibilities are limitless. Very young kids can learn about counting with a drone that hops from one place to the next, and the older kids can talk about its four forces of flight and the magic of aerodynamics.

Drones are adventurous little objects that can go where students should not. The applications of that are countless, but think about ecosystems and observing wildlife. How cool would it be to approach and photograph all the insects your parents told you to stay away from? 

STEMs are by definition hands-on subjects that deal with everyday problems. The kids actually enjoy putting their hands on these gadgets, and solving the real-life challenges their teachers throw at them. For once the teachers see enthusiasm and engagement in their students. It’s totally win-win.

What else can students learn from a Drone?

Following procedures: operating a drone and solving the problem at hand naturally builds that logic in students. Any STEM field requires the ability to follow and create procedures. Even when engineers get very creative, they still do that within a very clear system.

Working in teams: assigning team roles and working in functional groups is a hugely valuable skill anywhere, but especially in STEM fields. It is close to impossible now to run a one-man show. It is also one of the most intimidating aspects of work. Once they get used to it, it becomes enjoyable, and the team develops into a little ‘tribe’. They communicate well, build things together, lighten up failures, and celebrate success.

Understanding regulations: not all drones can be used at schools. The bigger models actually require governmental approvals. Where or when to fly the drone are also regulated matters.  There’s an etiquette kids learn as they go about flying these devices. Just like in the real world.

Safety: This is a highly important concept in STEMs, it is imperative that they understand how to keep themselves, their colleagues, and their drones safe at all times.

Maintenance: A well-maintained machine does what is expected. The opposite is also true. While flying, drones usually encounter a few bumps, if the parts aren’t properly replaced, they will show it in the next take off. And the weather will not be blamed for the way it dances out of control up in the air!

Troubleshooting: when things do not go well, the weather can actually be blamed! But only after all other machine related factors are ruled out. Spotting the error, naming it, proposing different possible reasons, and reaching the right one are invaluable skills for students. Few adults can do that.

Risk assessment: dealing with tech naturally involves some risks, the simplest one could be: it looks windy today, should we release our drones? Or, the battery is too low, is it wise to fly it over the lake? There’s usually a lot to consider. Risk should keep people alert but not cowardly. Being wise, responsible, and resourceful can be taught, and drones are a good example.

Theory: science is not just things we touch and see, there’s plenty of theory behind it, and a good deal of back-story regarding the people who came up with such breakthroughs.  Machines become much more ‘intimate’ and approachable once their secrets are revealed. We can then tell them what to do! This is the part where drones make learning STEMs a fun thing.

Which drones have the best buzz?

The market has plenty of models to choose from; consider these features before pressing the BUY button:

  • Your budget
  • Stage of education
  • Ready to fly or not
  • Needs assembly tools/soldering
  • Camera specifications
  • Fly time
  • Battery charge time
  • Weight/stability in windy weather
  • Controls/range of movement
  • Programmable or not
  • Spare parts availability
  • Safety features
  • Design aesthetics/visual interest

And here are some of our picks:

An elementary stage drone

The Hubsan X4 H107L is suitable for elementary stage students and absolute beginners, it is very basic, economic, ready to fly, and very lightweight.

When fully charged it can take a 9-minute spin. If you get several spare batteries, you can have longer flight times.

It is very lean, so it’s best not to let it out in windy conditions. It can roam for a nice 30 meters, which is a good range for the young ones’ scientific expedition!

A middle school drone

The Syma X5C is a more interesting vehicle, it has a 720P camera onboard, so it would allow the students more opportunities for filming and photographing their subject matter. It is relatively stable and versatile, equipped for a softer landing, and has an interesting appearance.

The weight of the drone is not enough to face windy weather, so it’s best to fly it on sunny days.  Its fly time without the camera is around 10 minutes, so extra batteries will come in handy, especially since the camera is expected to be fully utilized.

A high school drone

The Robolink CoDrone Pro is a couple of steps up from the regular vehicles; it is designed for the more versed users who would dapple with programming and coding a flight path.

It is a pretty piece of equipment, lightweight, but loaded with aerial stunts. The battery charge time is 40 minutes, giving a flight time of 8 minutes.

It has altitude control and hovering stabilization. Programming is not the only skill it addresses; the kit needs to be assembled, and would typically take an hour to do so.   

The other side of the story

Using drones at schools isn’t only fun and games, there’s been some controversy surrounding it. Time will tell if any of these concerns are valid.

It’s a fad: In education, as in any other man-made system, some practices are pillars and essential foundations, while others are more volatile.  Using drones in classrooms has all the glamour of fashion styles. It is also a new technology, and these things are generally short-lived.

It is a burden to the budget: The funds allocated to education are already stretched to the max. Adding extra items on the expenditure list is a tough call. Even with the funding from governments or big companies, still, school boards have long lists of priorities.

The teachers are already overbooked: The number of teachers is hardly sufficient, and the demand on their time is sizable. Asking them to train for and implement drone classes is sometimes a bit much.

The students end up with more theoretical material: The hands-on drone classes require further studies. This becomes an overload for the students and ultimately makes them lose interest.

What’s next?

Today’s world speaks casually about the internet of things, Big data, unpredictable AI machines, disruptive industries, MOOC’s, STEMs, an exponential growth of information, and unprecedented global and personal challenges.

Technology alone is not providing all the answers, and hence some clever people suggested adding an A to STEMs, and seeing what Art and the revised field of STEAM would offer to humanity. 

Even before that shiny new acronym was hip, Disney and PIXAR had mixed technology with art and came up with stunning products. These were not fads.

STEAMs will still need a pathway to students. Would it still be drones? Why not.  

Long story short

STEM is a day to day, hands-on, way of thinking, the same way that healthy eating is a way of life and not a diet.

My aunt was a physics professor, and when we were kids, she used to ask us what the difference between noise and music was? And why were some paintings pleasing to the eye, and some not?  Then she would talk about harmony, and wavelengths, and sensory organs. She did all that while we took a walk in the park.

My daughter is 12, and she thinks that being an engineer is a nice option, and has very good sentiments towards math and science. When something is not right we fix it. And we do that in a fun way.

Flying drones at schools is offering all that for kids who do not have a physics professor for an aunt or a cool engineer mom. It is even better, as it builds up young tech teams. And year after year, the students will develop the skill sets they need to fit in and to rule today’s and tomorrow’s world.