Game of drones

Drones (unpiloted aircraft) are making inroads in schools as learning tools with a variety of applications. IE Journalist Sue Osborne spoke with a number of teachers who are exploring their potential.

St Hilda’s School, Gold Coast, Queensland, is using computer coding with all year groups, including prep.

For Year 6 students, the drone is part of the STEM program to explore coding. Younger year groups are working with different types of robotics and droids. For senior students, the drone becomes a tool that can be used in sport and film making, for example.

Teachers Dan Martinez and Beth Claydon have written an iTunes U course which can be accessed by anyone, providing nine lesson plans and an assessment task for Year 6 students working with drones. The course has an emphasis on safety and ethics.

“It’s really interesting how coding can enhance what’s happening in the classroom, give students the opportunity to solve problems, take risks, fail and learn from their failures,” Dan said.

Students can do things like learn how to write code to make a drone move through an obstacle course and correct the coding if the drone fails to make it through the course.

“Technology is infiltrating our world so it’s really important that classes are relevant and up to date and include those ethical issues,” he said.

Beth said: “Coding is just an extension of problem based sequential thinking. It’s not that different from working through the sequence for brushing your teeth.

“It’s logical and process driven and connects to effective teaching practice and new ideas.

“The drone is just a peripheral for this work. The ability to take risks and learn how to adjust to failure is quite powerful.”

St Hilda’s also uses Lego robotics and Spheros to teach similar work to different age groups in the junior school.

The school invested in 10 basic drones, with the capacity to be coded, costing about $150 each for its junior school, with some larger drones for the senior school.

Beth and Dan emphasised that safety is always a priority when flying drones. Their lessons are usually conducted in the gym where there is enough space and the environment can be controlled.

The NSW Department of Industry’s Smart and Skilled Program makes funding available for people wishing to undertake a Certificate III in drone piloting. UAVAir is the first registered training organisation to offer the Certificate III in drone piloting to HSC VET students in schools in NSW.

Trainer Ashley Cox said the Certificate III in drone piloting has many potential applications. Any industry that relies on gathering real world data, and may have previously used a helicopter, a plane or people climbing heights can now achieve their goals at a fraction of the time, cost and risk to people by using a drone.

Drones are now widely used in agriculture for finding stock and measuring the health of plants. Ashley recently trained 12 Department of Fisheries staff to use drones to monitor sharks and the effects of climate change on the coast.

UAVAir can train teachers and students in drone use. Drones cannot be flown anywhere (such as near airports) and there are height restrictions on their use. These regulations are included in the course, as well as aeronautical radio communication to communicate with air traffic control.

Ashley said drone lessons were engaging students in the science and technology subjects.

“Before you take a drone out of the box and fly it you need to understand a whole lot of other things to make sure it operates effectively and safely.

“It makes other STEM subjects really important for students, as you need a reasonable level of maths and science to operate them. Young people are making that connection.”

Newington College Sydney E-learning Leader, maths and PDHE Teacher Michael Ha was an early adopter of drones and has been exploring their potential for about three years.

He first used drones in his capacity as PE teacher at a Melbourne school, gathering aerial footage of matches.

The aerial shots provide an advantage to a sideline mounted video, showing a wider range of movements during the game.

However, while the aerial footage was useful, Michael found controlling the drone took him away from teaching during the match. Similarly, getting students to control the drone also took them out of the game.

He has since explored a device which can be worn by a player and tracked by the drone, but this technology is not yet widely available.

At his current school, Newington, they are too close to Sydney Airport to use drones outside so they are only used in the gym.

He has moved away from sport applications and uses the drone to teach computational thinking and coding using an application called Tickle which allows an iPad to interface with the drone.

Michael does not recommend buying a whole class a drone each due to the costs, but thinks teachers should explore the potential of a number of different robotic devices that can be coded. Drones are just one example.

Tickle can talk to a variety of devices, including drones. It can allow various robotic devices and drones to communicate with each other – a drone can follow the movements of a robot for example.

The technology is easy to access but can have successful outcomes in the classroom, he said.

“Teachers shouldn’t purchase gadgets for the sake of it but keep the scope and sequence of the learning at the forefront of their minds,” Michael said.

“Don’t get into an ‘eduspace race’ trying to keep up with all the latest gadgets. Think about what you need to achieve and teach with these devices.

“STEM education is not just about gadgets and having lots of fancy toys.

“Whether you’re using the drone to study movement patterns in sport, to assess the landscape in a geography field study or exploring coding, what are the learning intentions that are driving the technological integrations?

“For students, having on your CV that you have worked on coding all sorts of devices, including drones, will show you have an understanding of computational thinking and coding that will be an advantage for your future.”


Michael Ha:

My FutureSchools conference slides:

EducationNation slides:

St Hilda’s: