2.8 Drones for Engineering in the Atmospheric Sciences

Monday, 8 January 2018: 10:30 AM
Ballroom C (ACC) (Austin, Texas)
John Ristvey Jr., UCAR, Boulder, CO; and R. Russell

The UCAR Center for Science Education and the University of Colorado are developing and testing a series of after-school engineering education experiences that develop students' motivations and capacities to pursue careers in STEM fields. The project provides engineering experiences to middle school students from low-income families. This ongoing work (SciEd.ucar.edu/research/engex), funded by the National Science Foundation, uses topics from the atmospheric and related sciences blended with engineering activities to understand and promote practices that encourage students to consider careers in science, technology, engineering, or mathematics (STEM) disciplines.

In this active learning session, we will demonstrate one of our engineering and science lessons using inexpensive Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) or “drones.” The suite of lessons is suitable for students and teachers with no prior UAV experience and works with inexpensive (under $50) hobbyist-level drones. Advanced lessons include engineering design of drone-borne skyhooks to deliver and retrieve payloads and simulated disaster area reconnaissance (using the UAV’s camera) and relief missions. The lessons have been tested with several cohorts of middle school and upper elementary students, and are available for free online (SciEd.ucar.edu/engineering-activities).

The learning objectives for this lesson are:

  • Students learn how remote sensing and aerial reconnaissance can be used to help people in disaster situations.
  • Students learn to plan an aerial survey mission to maximize the amount of useful data they can retrieve in a limited amount of time.

Although our UAV lesson sequence begins with simple “flight school” activities intended to make students into proficient UAV pilots, later lessons in the sequence incorporate atmospheric science concepts and engineering design activities. Aircraft, including UAVs, provide connections to the atmospheric sciences in two important ways: 1) aircraft in flight are strongly influenced by winds, precipitation, air density, and other traits of the atmosphere, and 2) many types of “aircraft” (including dropsondes, weather balloons, as well as UAVs and manned aircraft) are employed as instrument platforms to study the atmosphere. Coupled with the current strong public interest in UAVs, these connections to the atmospheric sciences made UAVs a logical choice to center an engineering and science education program around. Kids think drones are cool, and we can connect them to the atmosphere in various ways.

Engineering design is an iterative, decision-making process in which the basic sciences, mathematics, and engineering principles are applied to optimally convert resources to meet a stated objective. Among the fundamental elements of the engineering design process are the “establishment of objectives and criteria, synthesis, analysis, construction, testing and evaluation” (ABET). According to Next Generation Science Standard (NGSS) framework, there are both practical and inspirational reasons for including engineering design as an essential element of science education: “We anticipate that the insights gained and interests provoked from studying and engaging in the practices of science and engineering during their K-12 schooling should help students see how science and engineering are instrumental in addressing major challenges that confront society today, such as generating sufficient energy, preventing and treating diseases, maintaining supplies of clean water and food, and solving the problems of global environmental change” (NRC 2012, p. 9).

Our study includes an educational research component that involved samples of students drawn from the two different cohorts. Cohort 1 consisted of 32 participants (7 Female) who were part of the “I Have a Dream Program”, which supports low-income students with after-school programming. Cohort 2 had 55 participants (20 Female) who were part of an existing math and language arts tutoring and enrichment program conducted on Saturdays during the school year by teachers as an extension of a middle school’s programming.

During post-interviews and in responses to reflection prompts, youth commented on how their perceptions of drones had changed, from regarding them mainly as toys to starting to realize that UAVs can also serve as tools for science and engineering. For instance, one participant stated “I think it's a nice experience learning how to use drones or like any kind of technology... I care about it cause I think it's interesting how technology works, how drones work, and how drones can become a better thing, and how they can help people, cause I always thought of them as a toy until this.” Our research team also noted that the camera activity helped several youth realize the utility of drones for remote sensing, and thus provided an entree for encouraging participants to think about drones as scientific instruments rather than toys.

Engineering Experiences is a National Science Foundation-funded ITEST project (Award #1513102) with the Division of Research on Learning in Formal and Informal Settings (DRL). Engineering Experiences is designed to introduce and engage middle-school students to engineering during out-of-school time and foster long-term interest and pathways into the field.

We request video screen (to show portions of our promo movie), a table to put some UAV and supplies hardware on, and possibly some open space to demonstrate the activity.

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