By Brian Cook, Worcester County Public Schools
It is next to impossible to avoid technology advancement in a student’s daily life. Technology continues to evolve altering the educational and the instructional landscape of the past. Teachers are digging deeper into the unknown to meet the needs of its students to be 21st Century learners. Pocomoke Middle School (MD) is no different as it continues to take untraditional risks using technology to reap the benefit of preparing students for the future.
Focused on giving students foundational skills in aeronautics, coding, and problem solving, I initiated a drone after school program with the help of funding from ASCD’s Emerging Leaders Innovation Grant. At the initiation the drone program terminology like pitch, quadcopter, gimbal, and throttle were foreign words, but it soon became culture as my students used the terminology tackling the design process and physical construction of obstacle courses that could withstand different challenges given to each student. The failures have been plentiful, but the learning taking place has elevated the drone after school program into the school’s premier after school club.
If you stopped students in the hallways and asked if they were in the drone club, you will get a huge smile as they’ll share a story of one of their crashes and what caused their short setback. Students’ expressions say a lot of about their attitude towards any program. I learned I have one of the toughest jobs in telling students this particular after school session has filled up and they must wait until our next session.
In 2016, when I pitched the idea of starting a drone program I was met with some odd looks when I explained I had no prior actual experience with a drone outside of a reading in a Junior Scholastic magazine used in class. However, I had an administrator that was curious enough to bait me by asking questions; she challenged my thinking on how drones could impact student learning and the role was I willing to play in the process. The following are five powerful ideas brought up by my administrator that allowed me to develop and sustain my after school drone program.
Establish Short-Term Goals
Getting every 11-13-year-old child in the program to be a certified pilot may have been too big of a goal to garner, but it did not stop my passion for building a great program for my students. First it started with what we wanted students to accomplish after being active in one 8-week period meeting one hour each week. Researching other drone programs, it was imperative to have students know basic aeronautic terminology and what it looked like in the air. There was no way to hit every aspect with our age group, but we could prepare our kids to make a smooth transition into our district’s career and technical school.
Our community partner Sentinel Robotics educational division gave us a ton of insight into terminology that I was using incorrectly and gave us a foundation of where to start. Students were challenged to use the terminology when speaking with other students and was required in narratives to support their designed obstacle courses.
Availability to Everyone
Experience has taught me excitement rolls over into the classroom when a child is striving for something important to them. There could not be fear of having struggling students who do not always follow directions as easily as others. Yet teachers tend to develop programs and only want to pilot it with high achieving students. This hurts programs because students quickly make labels and offer dissent towards the program and the teacher facilitating it.
A truly innovative and engaging program must be for all students. In my Title I school students do not always get opportunities available to those with higher family incomes unless it is offered at school. Since our middle school is unique, hosting grades 4-8, I was challenged to offer a shorter version of the program to engage our elementary aged students too. Thus, building excitement for STEM as they move into sixth grade. The drone program is an opportunity to expose all students to aeronautics and give insight into career fields students did not know existed.
Invite people in to see what you are doing with your program. Sometimes when I thought we were being cutting edge, it was great to have experts in the field challenge my way of thinking. The result allowed me to look further into the program to keep improving it. For example, I wasn’t referencing a motor correctly when fixing a drone, and I was asked whether I ever built a drone from scratch. Such a simple question that has lead me into greater research on the types of drones available for students to build; a future goal is to have all our students build drones that can go through a student created obstacle course.
It’s necessary for feedback on your program by experts in the field. One university expert at a nearby university was critical of me not incorporating coding into our initial program because the skill set is one that is often needed in designing programs to support drones as well as other robotics. His feedback allowed us to seek out a coding apps for drones that was implemented the following year. Many students displayed a lot of frustration in stacking the code until they learned to think like a programmer. We sometimes had to draw out to act out the steps and visualize our failures to get the end result we wanted with the code; the ultimate end result was supporting problem solving opportunities.
Integrate Across Contents
I was not able to support this program alone; I needed help from my colleagues to support student’s mathematical development. I asked a mathematics teacher to join me in the adventure when converting measurements into customary units of length; one of the greatest challenges students encountered involved using a measuring tape accurately. The units of measurements were later used as limitations I set forth in developing an obstacle course.
In language arts students broke down numerous informational texts focusing on the history of drones as well as its capabilities in warfare. Measuring the area of a famous battle from their history class, we recreated the warzone area to scale using red solo cups and walked through the battle with and without drones. Students wrote narrative stories from the perspective of the soldiers with their new knowledge from the informational text as well as their experience of flying our drones into the war zone; each child had the opportunity to a drone simulation during this activity.
The initial addition of the mathematics focus was huge to our success. The students in the drone program were our experts in designing the warzone from their experience in developing obstacle courses. Strengthening their confidence with prior experience, students became the teachers to their peers guiding them through the task.
Support Their Technical Growth
When evaluating student coding and flying ability, find opportunities to highlight your students to the greater school community. Our after school program is grant funded and has an outside evaluator who visits the program from time to time. During site visits, we allowed students to vote on the best obstacle courses and have teams of two and three students race through course obstacles and verbally explain the different components of the course as well as the thought behind creating each component.
Invite the unexpected visitor into your fly zone. Whether it is a principal, administrator from another building, or school board member making a visit, select a student to review the fly zone rules as well how the flight controller operates. Allowing students to showcase their talents with aeronautic and coding terminology is a huge confidence builder. Plus, it is a small setting where they are most likely to be more successful.
If you are confident, take your show on the road to showcase student talents to other educators. For instance, in May 2018 I took six students to Common Ground, a regional technology conference hosted in Ocean City, Maryland, to showcase all components of our program. It was an eye opener for students to speak in a large conference room with microphones and teach educators from all over the state how to fly drones, compete in our mini-challenges, and answer off the cuff questions about their drone experiences. The topic of drones as so well received it was earmarked a featured session and done both days of the conference.
Choose Your Pathway
By anticipating and responding to technological advances facing children, innovative schools can be powerful gateways to new opportunities for its students. When one considers the rapid pace of changing technology in education, combined with individual challenges of keeping staff abreast of what is coming down the pike, there is not time for standing still as all teachers work to prepare students for the careers of tomorrow.
Brian Cook is an English Language Arts and STEM after school program teacher at Pocomoke Middle School. Connect with Cook on Twitter at @drbriancook.