The goal of Elizabeth City State University’s (ECSU’s) Drone Exploration Academy program is to capitalize on the increasing popularity of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), commonly known as Drones, to spark student interest and provide an experiential learning opportunity (ELO) in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). Drones, which have become a popular recreational tool among youth, are ideal platforms with enormous scientific value for engaging students in hands-on, inquiry-based learning to develop science and math skills, thereby focusing on the importance of these skills to succeed in college. The Drone Exploration Academy program is funded through NASA and a private foundation in the state of North Carolina (NC).
The key objectives of the Drone Exploration Academy project at ECSU were as follows: (i) engage students, especially from underrepresented groups, in experiential learning opportunities and field-based scientific investigation, in a mentoring relationship with professionals working in the STEM fields; (ii) educate students utilizing a STEM curriculum that meets national and standards for science and mathematics for the state; (iii) promote awareness of engineering-related careers and opportunities among K-12 educators, students, and parents; and (iv) integrate computer technologies and simulation tools to develop 21st century skills and increase student interest in STEM disciplines.
Research in project-based learning has demonstrated that projects can increase student interest in STEM because they involve students in problem-solving, working in teams, and connect real-world applications to classroom learning. The project activities supported student development through activity components that were fully integrated to form a comprehensive learning system. The key components of the project are (i) Authentic STEM Experience (ASE), (ii) Drone Field Experience (DFE), and (iii) Engineering Design Challenge (EDC).
The Drone Exploration Academy curriculum included at its core the UAV design, programming, sensor/payload, and piloting to conduct a field-based scientific investigation. The learning activities were carefully designed to meet the Next Generation Science Standards and the NC Standard Course of Study for Science and Mathematics. Guest speakers and field trips complemented in-class learning. The project activities also featured the EDC, that engaged student teams in designing, building, and programming a quadcopter UAV, culminating in a competition that was held on ECSU campus. The EDC component required student teams to design and build a quadcopter aerial vehicle that could be used for applications such as crop monitoring, environmental assessment, or infrastructure inspection. Students used computer-aided design (CAD) software, electronic boards, programming, simulation tools, and followed the engineering design process to meet the design challenge specifications.
The Drone Exploration Academy served eighty-three (83) high school students, with 59.04% Male and 40.96% Female participants. The participants received approximately forty (40) hours of hands-on STEM learning. Approximately, 60% of student participants were African-Americans. Project evaluation data was gathered through Student Feedback Surveys, Dimensions of Success (DoS) Observation tool, and pre/post topic self-efficacy questionnaire. The integration of drone curriculum, engineering design principles, student demographics, and evaluation instruments and results will be discussed in the paper.
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