Demco Blog: Makerspace Tools

I get asked all the time, ‘what tools do you recommend for maker spaces?’  It’s an important question because funds are precious and you want to be sure that whatever tool you add get used in the best possible way.

One of my biggest hopes as an educator is to inspire students to keep learning outside of the classroom.  The Hour of Code has become a staple in our community, and I’ve worked hard to push ‘beyond’ that single ‘hour of code.’

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We have several ‘programmable’ devices in our space: Sphero, Dot and Dash and even BB8.  Our students love programming these tools to navigate obstacle courses and perform missions.  However, nothing has made more of an impact than our Parrot Minidrones.

I’m an early adopter when it comes to drones.  I’ve kickstarted multiple drone platforms. Sadly, none of them were as slick and easy to fly as their rollout videos were.  I’ve fallen in love with the Parrot drone family.  My first Parrot drone was the AR 2.0.

screen-shot-2017-03-05-at-5-40-26-pm I saved for a year to buy it, and I still fly it with my students.  I like that it has a giant foam bumper that protects the props as well as fingers.  I’ve only had to replace a single motor and that was totally my fault for flying indoors without the bumpers.  Since then, I’ve purchased ten of the Parrot Cargo Minidrones.  Don’t let their size fool you.  These little guys are powerful and surprisingly smart.

I wrote a post earlier this month about my experience teaching an all-day professional development workshop with educators about drones in education.  You can check it out here.

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If you do a quick search on Youtube for drone fails, you’ll find tens of thousands of examples of people of all ages destroying their drones; many on their maiden flight.  While these mini drones are not nearly as expensive as the more advanced Bebop Drone I also purchased, I think it is essential to take good care of your tools.

Parrot has a native app that you can download to your tablet or phone and fly in seconds, but unless you have piloting experience, you will probably end up wrecking your drone in minutes.  For example: out of the box, the drone’s maximum height is set to 9.6 feet.  Most homes and schools have significantly lower ceilings.  So, when you start climbing it is probably going to go straight into whatever is directly above it; light fixture, ceiling fan, etc.  If you are outdoors, any breeze at all will carry these tiny quadcopters into the clutches of trees and bushes. Setting that height to a lower maximum and teaching students to use a block coding program like Tynker has helped me turn these ‘toys’ into ‘tools.’

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Once my students were familiar with the basics of block coding with Tynker, I created some basic ‘missions’ for them to fly. (Parrot gives the Tynker Drones 101 curriculum as part of its EDU purchasing plan.)  

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The first mission was simply taking off, traveling a set distance and landing safely.  The missions grew in complexity.  Eventually, they were traveling in complex flight paths and performing aerial acrobatics that would make any pilot proud.  Screen Shot 2017-03-13 at 11.27.35 AM

Screen Shot 2017-03-13 at 11.27.16 AMAfter completing what we called ‘flight school’ students were ready to navigate obstacles with the native free flight app.  Soon we were timing ‘runs’ and setting records on the courses.

By establishing rules for safety and responsibility, we’ve minimized damage.  By adding the block coding to these drones, my students have taken this ‘toy’ and turned it into a tool that pushes the boundaries of the Hour of Code.  I’ve never seen something motivate students to solve problems more passionately than these drones.

What’s next?  I’ve just recently learned about another platform for developing block coding.  It is called Drone Blocks.

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This drag and drop programming language is deceivingly powerful.  Programmers have used these basic tools to create fantastically complex autonomous missions that collect an incredible amount of information and data.  One, for example, creates 360-degree panoramas all autonomously.  There is no doubt that as students at younger and younger ages become proficient in basic coding and flight of unmanned aerial vehicles, fantastic new developments are in the near future.

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