The National Center for Education Statistics reports that 52% of students in US K-12 public schools were eligible for free and reduced lunch during 2013-2014, up from 38 percent in 2000-2001. Research is needed to better understand how to create engaging and effective informal learning environments for this changing youth demographic. For instance, what are their interests? How can they be provided with experiences commensurate with peers who have greater opportunities? What are the aspirations of young people in middle-school who will be tomorrow’s leaders? To answer these questions, we developed Engineering Experiences, an out-of-school-time program providing youth from low-income families with engineering and technology experiences in atmospheric and related sciences.
Over the last two years, using a design-based research methodology, we have developed, implemented, and studied a semester-long, after school engineering program based on Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV/Drones). Here, we report on the field trial of the final version of this program, and examine the efficacy of the program for increasing youth motivation and aspirations in STEM, enhancing their abilities to engage in engineering design processes, and for developing their capacity to use drones to address scientific and engineering problems. We also report on the changes the program has on youth perceptions of UAV/Drones: from considering UAVs as “toys” to realizing they can be used as “tools” to support of science and engineering practices.
To answer our research questions and to ensure that we were creating an engaging experience for this youth demographic, we generated a list of possible “high tech” projects (i.e., wind power, solar power, dropsonde, and other sensors platforms such as drones) and asked all youth to vote on their top preferences: students expressed an overwhelming interest in working with drones. The UAV curriculum was developed around three main segments: learning to fly, UAV performance tests, and UAV design challenges of carrying and retrieving a payload, and sensing a mock disaster area. The entire curriculum is organized around a realistic storyline in which students consider the needs of a small town to monitor conditions of a nearby volcano. Throughout the lessons, conditions change resulting in students needing to plan and implement survey and rescue activities using the UAVs. This 16-week long program was implemented with 12 middle-school students from low-income families. Student “flight log” booklets were used throughout the curriculum for intentional student reflection and a source of data. Both qualitative and quantitative data on student engagement, persistence, and competencies in engineering were collected, including surveys, short writing assignments, interviews and observations. Multiple surveys and interviews was administered to the youth to determine changes in their interests in engineering, changes perceptions about drones, their program experience, understanding of the engineering design process, reasons for attending the program, and help provide formative feedback to the curriculum team. Short writing assignments ask students to reflect on the relevance of engineering to their lives. Finally, observation data are used to provide insights on the level of engagement, and persistence of students in the program.
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