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Building STEAM Drones Online

August 25th

Students from all over the United States came together to participate in the Drone Forward's first online Drone Builder's Challenge. The event lasted one week and had many foreseen educational achievements but was most important were those lessons that Drone Forward hadn't planned for.

On the morning of August 3rd, students from all over the United States waited for the time to come when they could open the orange and white box that contained their Circuit Scribe Drone Builder’s Kit. That summer evening, the students logged into the Zoom classroom of Drone Forward Incorporated, ready to start the Drone Builder’s Challenge; but before opening their kits, the students would learn about principals of electricity and related career paths, and go over pre-flight safety checklists.

The Circuit Scribe Drone Builder’s Kit was chosen by Drone Forward Incorporated for its

ability to connect to so many important educational lessons outside of flying drones; any program focused on getting kids flight ready and sending them off on their own for hours of unencumbered flight time would be better served by more expensive kits in the market. With the Circuit Scribe kit coming in at a price of $50, it was an extremely attractive option for DFI; this price point allowed the nonprofit to introduce as many kids to the world of drones as possible. As a result of the relatively low cost of the Circuit Scribe kit, DFI was able to provide 70% of the participants in the Drone Builder’s Challenge with drones kits free of charge; while DFI also provided the week long online instruction to all students for free.

DFI’s target students are underrepresented and underprivileged youth who need every educational experience to pack as much valuable knowledge into lessons as possible. In connection, the CEO of Drone Forward, Jesse Pacheco, found the Circuit Scribe kit to be the best tool on the market to catalyze the multifaceted lessons DFI wanted to incorporate into the course.

DFI’s CEO, Jesse Pacheco, started his career out as a teacher of “at-risk” youth in Virginia and his efforts earned him an Outstanding Special Education Teacher Award from the National Special Education Teacher Association. Thus, Drone Forward is able to intertwine a multitude of valuable lessons into their curriculum because their leadership spent significant time in a high-stakes formal classroom setting developing the ability to do so.

DFI maximized the Circuit Scribe Drone Kit’s profound ability to spark student interest into the basics of electrical circuitry and the flow of electricity. Most importantly, the Circuit Scribe kit enabled students in the Drone Builder’s Challenge to see if they enjoyed working with electronics without risking electrical shock or having to solder components.

The circuitry and electricity basics portion of the Drone Forward’s course ended in a “Careers in Electricity” showcase which went over the requirements and yearly incomes of occupations such as home-electricians and electrical engineers. The careers DFI focused on ranged from roles students could begin out of high-school to career paths they could build upon in educational chunks while still earning salaries. Most importantly, all the electricity related job paths students learned about were careers with little chance of becoming automated in the future.

After the electricity based portion of the lesson, students were led by Nicole Abbett in a lesson on drone safety and the importance of a pre-flight checklist. Drone Forward is lucky to have professionals like Nicole Abbett volunteering their time; Nicole is a leader in the field of drone photography and currently does work for high-profile clients such as the National Hockey League (NHL). What is great about having someone like Nicole teach the safety portion of the Drone Builder’s Challenge is that she has a plethora of interesting on-the-job stories to enrich the content and it’s no surprise that many of the young-women in the course felt inspired by Nicole’s achievements in a drone photography industry that is 94% male.

Finally, the students got to open up their Circuit Scribe Drone Builder’s Kit and go through the process of building with Jeramy Davis. Jeramy is the owner of the drone data and

geographic information system (GIS) collection company Optic UNITY and he represents the entrepreneurial spirit that is lifting the drone industry to new heights. Most importantly, Jeramy instilled upon students the fundamental perspective of focusing more on what a drone can do than what it does; which is the best way to change the drone from a toy to a tool. Jeramy’s desire to empower DFI students by tapping into the entrepreneurial avenues that drones offer inspires students to seek personal autonomy with their career choices.

During the drone building portion of the course, the Circuit Scribe kit presented another hurdle that unearthed a major lesson for many students: The drone kit requires fairly advanced hand-eye coordination, motor skills, and reasoning. The kids that grew up in the Erector Set generation would have had their Circuit Scribe Drone Kits built in a matter of seconds but the majority of DFI students suffered from the non-transferable patterns and ease-of-use expectations touch screens and PlayStation controllers teach kids. The online build component of the Drone Builder’s Challenge was frustrating for teachers and students alike but it was essential for all students, especially those that may go on to careers in research and development, vocational trades, or who may someday want to complete do-it-yourself home projects.

Over the course of the week, the students would take their drones through a number of different challenges to become "Drone Forward Pilots" and compete for the “Heavy Lifter Award” at the end of the week. What DFI didn’t expect is that many of the Circuit Scribe Drone Builder’s Kits would not make it through the week and only 25% of the students were able to keep their drones working long enough to compete for the “Heavy Lifter Award”: the “Heavy Lifter Award” is for the student that modifies their drone to carry as many coins as possible a distance of 20 feet. The result of so many Circuit Scribe drones not making it more than a few days can be attributed to the fact that new drone pilots are severely rough on drones; however, there were many unexplained malfunctions that grounded about 40% of the kits.

On the last day of the challenge, each student took center stage and presented their accomplishments over the course of the week. For the “Heavy Lifter Award” the student to carry the most weight was Josh from Florida with a total weight of 35 grams. Josh had an ingenious counterbalancing system using all four arms of his drone to lift coins and which counted on electrical tape as the lightweight mechanism that held his payload together. In second place for the “Heavy Lifter Award” was Chloe from Georgia at a payload of 22 grams and she might have been able to carry more if she hadn’t burned out her motors skyrocketing numerous payloads 50 feet into the sky.

Students who didn’t get to compete in the “Heavy Lifter Challenge” made it clear that it wasn’t for a lack of trying; the amount of time each student that had trouble with their drone kit spent trouble-shooting and fixing their drone was impressive. In terms of retrofitting and trouble shooting the issues of a faulty Circuit Scribe drone, Damien from Louisiana had the most dedication and retrofitted the kit in a way that foreshadowed engineering greatness.

What was most important is that Drone Forward pushed students whose drones stopped working to explain why; for example, one of the student’s parents said their drone had a short circuit and the student was asked to research what that actually meant and present that information to the class. Thus, although it was disappointing that so few Circuit Scribe drones made it to the end of the week, the kit still provided the perfect platform for educational journeys that were valuable.

Circuit Scribe Incorporates Art into Drone Education

What most drone programs that attempt to incorporate the arts of STEAM into their STEM curriculum struggle to do is find a way to blend art and drones in an educationally valuable and engaging fashion, which is where the Circuit Scribe Drone Builder’s Kit shines. The Circuit Scribe kit allows students to create their own frames, or skeletal system, for the drone brain and propellers. Although Circuit Scribe recommends using cardboard, a multitude of lightweight materials can be utilized to create these drone frames and students are allowed complete creative authority to push these designs as far as possible.

In DFI’s Drone Builder’s Challenge, the students were given the opportunity to design, build, and submit drone prototypes based on the Circuit Scribe kit; the final class ended with the students voting on their favorite drone creation. James from Buffalo, New York won the “Drone Creation Award” for his very artistic “Infinity Drone” that was shaped in the figure eight of an infinity symbol. Although James’ creation did not fly, the enjoyment of creating his “Infinity Drone” and the excitement he displayed in describing the thought process of his design were invaluable.

A Socioeconomically Diverse Classroom Increases Value

Although Drone Forward’s mission is to provide underrepresented and underprivileged students with access to drone-centric STEAM education, DFI decided to open its online summer classes to all students in order to help during the US education crisis imposed by COVID-19.

The Drone Builder’s Challenge contained a diverse range of students and the social educational opportunities provided because of this diversity were valuable in their own right. For example, some of the students did not have air-conditioning and in order to be comfortable, showed up to the first class shirtless; although the practice was not condoned by DFI, the experience offered those children who take for granted the cool blast of refrigerated air the chance to realize that 10% of households in the US still don’t have air conditioning.

Students who normally get to partake in drone-centric STEM and STEAM education workshops and camps are a minority for financial reasons. When Drone Forward began a thorough investigation of the industry, it found that most drone-centric STEM and STEAM education providers have rates of $195 to $735 per student, per program; many drone building programs also require an additional drone cost of $200. Realizing the immense ability for drones to introduce youth to the career opportunities of the future, Drone Forward set out to bridge the education gap in the industry and create a self-sustaining nonprofit to provide underprivileged and underrepresented youth with the same opportunities to grow in drone and robotics industries.

The Drone Builder’s Challenge was a success for DFI and is a program the nonprofit plans on developing into a multi-course online offering. Although many businesses have been severely damaged by COVID-19, Drone Forward believes the crisis forced them to improve. If it had not been for COVID, Drone Forward would have limited its educational offerings to only underrepresented and under-served students. Because DFI decided to help all students during the summer of 2020, the organization learned how important it is for privileged students to come in direct contact with those that have less. What is powerful about the online education format is there is no way to ignore a face or simply go to the other side of the classroom to get away from something you don’t understand.

Drone Forward is dedicated to reaching as many students as possible during the current educational crisis imposed by COVID-19. During COVID, the financial limitations many families have only increased an immense education gap in the United States and it is imperative to give all students a chance to better themselves by participating in online extracurricular education opportunities. Please reach out to us if you know of any children who could benefit from participating in any of Drone Forward's programs. Drone Forward also welcomes qualified individuals to apply to become mentors and teachers. In connection, the program is always looking for drone/robotics/technology companies that are interested in sponsoring programming. All interested parties should go to and simply submit the contact information and someone from Drone Forward will get back to you.

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