This past week I had the pleasure of presenting a day-long workshop at the Illinois Computing Educator Conference.  As I told my participants, I am not an expert in drones, but I have had a life-long fascination with flight.  I’m sure this is in part due to growing up on Air Force bases around the world as a child.

My first airplane

I have purchased a wide variety of drones in the last decade.  My first drone or Unmanned Aerial Vehicle was the Parrot AR Drone 2.0.

Believe it or not, I still have this drone and flew it during my workshop last week.  While it was cutting edge when I bought it, the much smaller drones made by Parrot in the last couple of years are far more responsive and stable.

The core concept I wanted our participants to walk away with was that drones are much more than remote controlled toys.  In fact, they are powerful tools that can teach coding, problem-solving and develop grit and resilience.

Drones I’ve used with students. My favorites are the Parrot drones.

I began by familiarizing folks with the Tynker Coding App.  Tynker is currently the only block coding app that works with the Parrot Minidrones.

Most were familiar with block-type coding, so after some exploring with Tynker’s Crash Course, they were ready to connect and begin coding their drones.

I developed three challenges for the participants.  My goal was to give them a chance to work through the design thinking process that my students use.  Through these challenges, I was also hoping to highlight different STEAM subject areas.  The first lesson, The Cargo Challenge, asked them to transport the maximum amount of cargo a predetermined distance and at a minimum height.

The Parrot Minidrones have Lego connectors on top and this allowed us to easily attach Lego bricks to the top of the drones.  It was exciting to watch the different groups try various amounts of bricks.  The most interesting part of this exploration was that not only does the amount of cargo matter, but how it is affixed to the drone.  A wide base helped keep the drone steady in flight.

Our second challenge was an example of how coding and robotics could be used to create art.  I taught everyone a mini-lesson on low light photography and light trails or light painting and showed them several videos that demonstrated some of the ways professional drone choreographers have used this technique.

We attached tiny LED blinking lights to the drones and then programmed a variety of simple programs.  We captured the long exposures with a slow shutter speed app for the iPad, which was mounted on a tripod.  One key point was that the Parrot Minidrones need to be able to see the ground in order to orient themselves.  Because the lights were low, we used a flashlight to illuminate the ground below its flight.   Setting up several small LED’s to illuminate the ground would make this process even more successful.  Here you can see the whole process in action:

Our third challenge incorporated much of what was learned earlier.  The challenge was to transport and deliver a minifigure from one point to another.

I should have added ‘safely’ to the instructions because several of the groups found novel ways to ‘deliver’ their cargo.

We closed out the day exploring all the different drone platforms and exploring various curricular areas and how drones can be incorporated.  Here is probably my favorite part of the day when we had all the different drone platforms flying around the room.  I love the ‘buzz’ of both the drones and the participants learning and sharing.

I created a padlet with resources and lesson ideas.  You can access it here and feel free to add your own ideas as well.

This was my first time leading a full-day professional development.  It took an incredible amount of time and preparation, but I think it went incredibly well.  If you are interested, the entire presentation is available HERE.