More than 100,000 K-12 students across the country experimented with engineering, coding and design in the 4-H National Youth Science Day “Drone Discovery Challenge” Wednesday.
Students worked in groups overseen by volunteers to explore the science behind drones and apply it to real-world problems. Younger students experimented with drone engineering and design, while high schoolers learned about computer coding for remote sensors and unmanned flight.
Students didn’t experiment with actual drones. To keep costs down, they used items from a 4-H kit, like a paper plate and foam airplane, to learn about the concepts of flight and remote sensing. The only real technological item is the remote sensor.
“We knew that even if we used a little small drone, the price would be beyond taking it to scale for 4-H,” 4-H president and CEO Jennifer Sirangelo says. “So we’ve really been able to focus more on the engineering and design and use real-world materials to do that.”
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Sirangelo adds that 4-H’s Junk Drawer Robotics program, which teaches kids about science, engineering and technology through experiments crafted with common household products, is the organization’s best-selling curriculum with educators and club facilitators. Her team wanted to bring the same accessibility to the drone challenge.
Drone technology is 4-H’s latest foray into hands-on STEM education for National Youth Science Day, with previous experiments involving motion and car collisions, aerospace engineering and environmental cleanup solutions. Sirangelo says this year’s NYSD event was the most popular in its nine-year history because of the “cool factor” associated with drones, and that next year’s experiment is already in the works.
Though 4-H’s roots are in agriculture, the 114-year-old organization has evolved with the interests and career paths of its members.
“One of the reasons we chose drones was because of the huge application to agriculture,” Sirangelo says. “From remote sensing on water, soil health, fertilization and environmental impact, drones are used in a significant way in agriculture, but also in other aspects of the economy. We thought it was a great way to mix the agriculture, the excitement of science and real-world applications.”
About 200 students convened Wednesday in the nation’s capital, for the main event, which drew STEM advocates such as White House Chief Technology Officer Megan Smith, Discovery Channel “MythBusters” host Kari Bryon and former U.S. Army drone operator Brett Velicovich.
“I think drones are a really good entry into engineering,” Bryon says. “It’s something that’s very current and really exciting … and I think it’s really cool to show kids the connection between what they’re doing … and real life, how they could grow up and be somebody who drives a drone. It’s an important connection to make.”
High school students involved with 4-H facilitated those connections by helping to lead younger student groups and offering their expertise. Youth leader Francisco Garcia, 17, will be a certified drone pilot once he completes training at his Texas high school. He says “every single one of [the students]” was engaged in Wednesday’s event and stresses the importance of early exposure to STEM education.
“This is the first time [most participants were] exposed to drones,” he says. “I’m teaching them the language and the different aspects of flying drones, and the general exposure of what they can be used for.”
Another 4-H youth leader, Becca Velasquez, 17, hadn’t experimented with drones before but quickly caught on, echoing Garcia’s sentiments. She helped younger students with flight and hands-on implementation during the experiment, stressing how effective it was in engaging students and getting them excited about STEM education.
When asked to describe the event: “In one word, awesome.”
Wednesday was Bryon’s first National Youth Science Day, but she says she’ll be back. Promoting science by getting kids excited and having fun is what drew Bryon, who has worked on reality-based science shows for more than 10 years, to work with 4-H on the event.
“I got to sit there and watch a kid learn how to fly a drone, and the giggles coming out of his little mouth, his little brace face mouth, was just the cutest thing I had seen,” Bryon says. “I think we definitely have a drone flyer for the future.”