Educators from the UCAR Center for Science Education have developed a series of engineering education activities using inexpensive “drones” or UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles). The activities have been tested with several cohorts of middle school-aged students in OST (Outside of School Time) settings, and have been refined and improved as a result of that testing. Most of the students in each of those settings came from low-income families, and most were also of Hispanic background. The activities have also been tested with high school students in an OST program run by CABPES (Colorado Association of Black Professional Engineers and Scientists), and with 5th grade elementary students. This work was done with funding from an NSF ITEST grant provided by the NSF Division of Research on Learning in Formal and Informal Settings, (# 1513102).
The curriculum consists of more than a dozen lessons that can be combined in various ways to fit the needs of each educational setting. The lesson plans are available online for free at SciEd.ucar.edu/engineering-activities, and can be completed using hobbyist UAVs costing $50 or less. Lessons are suitable for novices without previous flying experience, and include a "flight school" series for new pilots. Once students have become competent pilots, they conduct a series of performance tests to determine how fast their UAV’s fly, battery lifetime which controls flight duration, and the amount of payload weight the UAV can carry. Next, students use this performance data to take on engineering challenges. The “Retrieve a Payload” activity challenges students to design a “skyhook” device to attach to their UAV to enable it to pick up and retrieve a small payload from across the room. The initial version of this activity provides students with simple materials, such as pipe cleaners and rubber bands and tape, with which to design and build their own skyhooks. A followup extension activity has students choose between different designs of 3D printed skyhooks to use in a reprise of the payload retrieval task.
The capstone activity for the curriculum requires students to survey a model town using the UAV’s camera. Portions of the town have been damaged by a disaster; student UAV operators must determine the extent and details of the damage. The town is hidden from student view by a “mountain range” (a tarp over some chairs), so the students must hover their UAV over the town and record video of the scene below. This “Disasterville” activity also incorporates an engineering design task; the UAV’s camera must be slightly “hacked” to allow it to point downward. An optional literacy extension requires students to create a comic strip-like storyboard describing an aid mission using UAVs (such as delivering medical supplies). We have also developed a UAV mission board game that allows students to simulate use of an expensive, professional grade UAV to monitor a volcano; making optimization choices of instruments to carry based on weight, cost, and energy use; and iterating on their plan over the course of multiple simulated flights.
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