STEM Learning Using Code-able Drones

The 8th graders in the Academy of Aerospace and Engineering have just completed a six-week project where they learned to code and fly small, indoor quad-rotor helicopters, or “drones.” These drones are essentially flying robots. They are Codrones by Robolink, a startup company featuring products for STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) learning. I started using them with students last year, and we spent about one month with them, but this year I wanted to extend this time to give the students more opportunity and challenge–this ended up working out very well. The Codrone comes with a kit to make a small controller which can be used to fly the Codrone manually, but mainly features an Arduino device to allow the user to code the drone, hence the name, Codrone. Students first go to the Robolink website for tutorials on the Codrone and the Arduino programming. Then they download and use an Arduino coding platform on a laptop, then upload the code to the Arduino device and into the Codrone. Students learned to code the Codrone to fly on a set path.

I gave the 8th graders a culminating challenge to fly the Codrone around an obstacle to land on a small platform–this setup simulated a real-world scenario where an astronaut was hiking in a remote area to simulate conditions on Mars, but slipped and fell into a ravine from which a helicopter could not rescue him. A hiking rescue team was dispatched, but would take several hours to get to him. In the meantime, he was suffering from the fall and needed emergency medical supplies. The Codrone was the delivery vehicle for these emergency supplies. One crew managed to code their drone to fly and land within six inches, or about one simulated body length, from the wounded astronaut–they are featured in the photo in this post. Other crews did almost as well. Overall, the students found the scenario fun and challenging. Here are some comments the students had in their reflection after we concluded this project:

Overall I believe that working with the Codrone’s was good because I learned a lot. My crew especially learned a lot about teamwork and persistence. My crew had a lot of issues with code and having persistence and working as a team really helped us…We realized coding is not easy at all, and you have to code exactly what you want the drone to do because otherwise it will not work. My favorite part of the project was probably just when we actually got something done. Even if it was the smallest thing it made my group proud since we had a lot of issues. We had a lot of struggles but it was just great when we could actually get something done. 

Overall I learned a lot from participating in CoDrone. I learned not only about coding but also about teamwork, and how helpful it can be to have multiple people looking at the same code when trying to figure it out. Before beginning this project, I had very little knowledge of how to code, what coding was and what kinds of commands/variables could be used while coding. After we finished the final fly-off challenge though, i have a much clearer understanding of coding.

I learned a lot from the CoDrone experience. At first, it was hard to even get it off the ground. But we got through that problem in the first couple days. Our next goal was to get it turning and we were able to get it to do what we wanted. Lastly, we were challenged with doing the obstacle course. Our closest distance was 1.5 ft away from the target. I mainly learned that getting frustrated to easily never helps anything. We worked better when we were all calm and focused. My favorite part of this process was actually getting close to the target. I know that’s probably everyone’s favorite part but it was really exciting.

I learned a lot about coding while doing Co-Drone. I learned about how coding works, and how to understand what each line of code does. I think this EDP took a lot of teamwork and persistence since it was so challenging. I think that it was really important to understand that coding a machine to do something is very difficult because it is almost like learning another language (Code). Although our crew struggled with a lot doing this, in the end, we did really good. It just took a little time to get the angle and distance right but with a lot of trials we were able to get it about 6 inches away.

CoDrone was very useful and helped me to learn a lot about coding. I was also very happy with the turnout of the EDP. This EDP allowed me to be able to see how an actual coder might work. Whenever I hear about coding, the fact that the coder must be very accurate with their code would always come up. I found this to be true as an extra space or a missing semi colon could easily change the outcome of the situation. I also really liked how there was a final challenge and that the situation that it was based upon a real life situation. Overall I really liked this challenge and i would participate in this again.

When coding, tinkering, testing, and experiment with CoDones, I was able to learn information about coding that I would not be able to learn otherwise. To start, I had very little experience with any type of coding. Since I was able to gain experience with C++, I have an entirely new view on it. Most importantly, I learned that coding is essentially just logic. If you tell the drone to do something, it will do it, but it can’t tell the difference between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ code. As for my favorite part, I liked the final fly-off. It was great to see all of what has been worked on for 2 months culminate together for a single flight. With improvements, there could be specific class periods dedicated to specific things, like actually learning to code or how to repair the drone, but most of it should be structured how it was already done. After this experience, I can now say that I done something few other people have.

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Academy 8th Graders Doing Culminating STEM Activities

With about a month of school left, Ms. Garavel and I have been giving the 8th grade students in the Academy of Aerospace and Engineering various culminating activities. These students have been in the academy for two years, and they are now very capable of rigorous, thoughtful work that integrates the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) concepts and skills they have learned. In science, the students are wrapping up the last unit on earth science that focused on astronomy, especially of the Solar System. In math, most 8th graders will finish their last unit in the next week or two, then those taking high school-level classes, such as Algebra or Geometry, will take a final exam on June 14th. In the Principles of Aerospace Science Class, students are integrating these science and math concepts and skills in a unit on air navigation. Students learn first how to navigate by landmarks using pilotage, then using speed and distance and time using deductive or “dead” reckoning, then learn about celestial and radio navigation as ways to provide a fix, and finally they see how modern navigation systems have automated most of these skills. Here are photos of the students doing a dead reckoning lesson on the flight simulator:

Another culminating activity that the 8th graders are doing is to code and fly small indoor drones called Codrones by Robolink. Students have learned how to code an Arduino device that controls the Codrone, and now they are preparing to do a challenge where they will program the Codrone to fly a specific course. The course is laid out to simulate a rescue mission where the Codrone will deliver emergency medical supplies to a stranded hiker. All of the culminating activities the students do will help strengthen their learning over the past two years.

Teaching Persistence is Key to STEM Learning

Students in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) programs often tackle difficult projects, and if they have short-term expectations, they can become discouraged–instead, they need to learn persistence. Students in the Academy of Aerospace and Engineering tackled several STEM projects recently and showed outstanding persistence in achieving results.

The 7th graders learned the basics of model rocketry in May by first taking and passing a safety test, then by building and launching Estes Alpha rockets–I covered this in a previous post. After that, the students have designed, built and launched original model rockets of their own design. They were required to make all the parts of the model rocket themselves–they designed and 3D printed nose cones, they hammered out metal to make engine retainer clips, they made fins, and they put it all together and measured the stability of their rockets. At each stage, things went wrong, but the students fixed the problems and pressed on. In the end, all six crews successfully launched and tested their model rockets. Here are photos of each crew with their uniquely designed rockets:

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The 8th graders also showed persistence in a few recent activities. First, one crew continued to refine the design of an electrically powered model airplane that was part of an American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) STEM challenge we did this winter. The goal was to have the airplane fly around a pole that supplied electricity to the airplane’s motor. At first, none of the airplanes even moved when power was applied–there was too much drag on the wheels and too much weight for the thrust available. The students refined their designs and finally got a couple airplanes to almost fly up into ground effect. We talked about what we learned and the importance of persistence. One crew took this to heart and kept working on their airplane during their free time. Finally, a couple weeks ago they achieved absolute success as their airplane took off and flew steadily around the pole at about one to two feet of altitude–the whole academy cheered as they did this, as we all knew how hard they had worked. Here are photos:

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Another set of students have worked for weeks on an originally designed trebuchet. They worked on this as their project during one day per week when I allow students a creative period in the makerspace to create or make whatever they wish within some broad guidelines. The students designed and built a trebuchet, but then repeatedly failed to launch a softball successfully. They kept persisting, however, and finally achieved success right before the end of school, launching a softball on a great arc over about one hundred feet of distance. Here are photos (note: one student, Alek, is missing from the photos since he was at the National Invention Convention that day):

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Finally, the 8th graders have worked on the Codrone project where the coding of a small model aircraft (drone) took much patience and persistence, as described in an earlier post. For both the 7th and 8th grade classes in the academy, all the students have learned that big STEM projects require persistence to achieve results, but that the payoff in personal satisfaction makes it worth it, and they are connecting this persistence to other areas of their life.

 

Dynamic End of School Year Activities

While many schools are winding down the school year with “fun” activities, videos, and other educationally light fare, the students at the Academy of Aerospace and Engineering are working on challenging and engaging activities right up to the end. The 7th graders, having just completed a lab comparing two types of model rockets, are starting an engineering project where each crew is designing their own original model rocket, then building and launching it as a test of the design. Students are ensuring the rocket is stable and are analyzing what forces will act on it. Here are some of the students launching their rockets during the lab while following all safety procedures laid out by the National Association of Rocketry:

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The 8th graders are completing a coding and engineering project where they built and coded small drones, then flew them. These are Codrones made my Robolink, and the students had to learn everything to do this project through online tutorials. The Codrone uses an Arduino platform, and Robolink provides modified C++ code that the students can use, then tailor to make the drone do what they want. Essentially, this is a robotics activity. This was a challenging project, involving coding and flying. Here are some photos of the students working with Codrones:

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Another task by one crew is to follow up on our Sundial Project and demonstrate the winning design to the Superintendent so that he can approve it to be built outside our school. To prepare this demonstration, the students made a full-size prototype with floor tiles, then laid them out and tested the sundial’s accuracy – it was spot on, as the last photo shows where Sydney is the gnomon and Richard is pointing to the current time, 3:45PM, which is right where Sydney’s shadow falls:

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Finally, the 8th graders just finished the earth science unit on astronomy, so we are looking at life skills using Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Dr. Stephen Covey. The students are studying what Covey said, then planning how to apply them in their lives now and in the near future in high school.  We are wrapping up an outstanding year, and giving the students these challenging activities makes for a good closure.