Earlier this month, I watched students Andrew L, Joschua I and Joschua M take their hand assembled drone for its inaugural flight. At the time, I remember being both astonished by this accomplishment and wanting to celebrate alongside them – It was just that cool! Mr Brice, their science teacher and sponsor, helped explain that while this flight marked the resolution of a number of challenges the students faced along the way, this test flight was not the end, and in fact, a new beginning for further tinkering, calibrations, and modifying components. As soon as their drone touched down, I caught a glimpse of what he was referring to. The boys sprung into action and began immediately reflecting on what went well, what still needed tweaking, and how they would go about fixing it. Their “back to the drawing table” attitude towards improving their design was impressive, to say the least. From an educator’s lens, I don’t think the idea of failure being a design criterion had ever been more clear.
After a few days I sat down with Mr. Brice where it quickly became apparent that the boys were the ones who a) had approached him and b) were drawing from numerous sources to educate themselves and drive this project forward. While the boys initially got together because of their common interests: Joschua’s love of flight, the other Joshua love for wires and understanding how to solder them along with Andrew’s experience from a DJI summer course he had attended the previous summer, I came to discover that this mutual desire to learn about drones had quickly expanded to a matrix of teachers, parents, and DJI support staff. When prompted Andrew, asserts that by this point, their process was less ad hoc and more systematic and in line with the methods of investigation they were covering in their science classes. While there is often no magic bullet for sustaining student buy in, the work and energy that was being generated by these students seemed to not only reflect the unique confluence of problem-finding and play it also provided clues to how educators might help nurture that authenticity and sense of ownership in their students’ learning.
With that, according to the students and Mr. Brice, one aspect of the build that was particularly interesting was the routing of wires. Once the team understood the “why” and the decision to modify their drone kit was made, they began by shortening some of the wires to the motors – their objective was to reduce the overall weight of the drone while organizing the wiring in a way that made more sense to them. He continues, that it is always a bit tense when you are modifying a component but ultimately we were very happy with the changes we made and the several grams of weight we were able to shave off the drone’s overall mass – something that ultimately improved its performance and flight time.
Although born outside of the classroom, this project has had a ripple effects and created new questions (in class) around scientific method, the design process and how to drive student learning. New drone projects from other students are popping up as well as new recruits emerging to volunteer to work with Andrew and the team. Student-driven initiatives such as making these projects part of a club are also underway. We are also seeing a renewed interest for programming, working with Arduino boards and perhaps most importantly, the emergence of student experts who are sharing and helping to expand each other’s definition of learning as an authentic experience. Ultimately, this project flourished because of curiosity, collaboration and the learning network these student created for themselves.
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