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What Drones Are Doing to Deliver Better Student Engagement

Kristin Donley teaches students who have felt completely disconnected in school or just dropped out. They’re not an easy bunch to motivate.

But Donley has found a surprising hook: drones.

“I quickly recognized that these kids needed something to inspire them,” said Donley, who teaches at Arapahoe Ridge High School, an alternative school in Boulder, Colo., and presented her work June 24 at the International Society for Technology in Education’s annual conference here. “I wanted to bring something that was relevant, something they’d heard a lot about, that they think is interesting, but have probably never touched.”

She partnered with a local post-secondary institution, Front Range Community College, which sent its students to help Donley’s classes use computer coding to fly drones through a maze.

Donley’s students already knew drones were delivering everything from packages for companies like Amazon to pizza. They were also aware that the tech is transforming warfare, including in the current conflict between Russia and Ukraine.

And because many of her students’ parents are agricultural workers, they’d heard farmers use drones to monitor crops. Some even asked Donley how they could get a license to operate those drones. At least a few of Donley’s students have gone on to get credentials in flying drones.

“Normally, when they would come to school, they would be on their phones, and you couldn’t get those phones away from them,” Donley said. But during the drone activities, “their phones went down.”

Drones spur students to problem-solve and collaborate

Carole Geruso, an educational technology specialist for the Glens Falls City School District near Albany, N.Y., also tapped into enthusiasm for drones, with a very different group of students: 5th graders.

This past school year, she taught a five-week introductory course on drones to sections of about two dozen students. Only a handful in each class had experience flying drones on their own.

Most of their stories went something like this: “I had a drone for a week, and then I flew it up into a tree,” Geruso joked.

With Geruso’s help, they learned to write code to fly drones around the school library.

Working with drones taught students skills beyond coding and computer science, she said. When three kids share one drone, “they have to collaborate,” Geruso said. “They have to troubleshoot together on a huge scale.”

Many teachers believe they can’t bring drones into the classroom because they’re costly, both teachers said. But Donley was able to find a simple model for about $90 online.

Other teachers who have incorporated drones into their instruction say safety can be a logistical challenge and recommend goggles or glasses to protect students’ eyes from flying drones. And schools that use more sophisticated drone technology have to consider liability concerns.

Geruso’s district invested in two sets of 10 drones. But she recommends educators whose districts can’t afford drones consider borrowing a set from a local vocational education program, or look into grants.

Geruso’s final piece of advice for educators considering teaching with drones? “Jump in,” she said. “It’s worth it.”

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