“I didn’t realise that flying drones involved so many things that I already have a firm handle on.” Denver, Year 10, Euroa Secondary College.

Seeing these words scribbled on a feedback form confirmed my belief that even a small contribution can make a difference to the STEM challenge that we are currently facing in Australia. Famous for Ned Kelly tales and a re-purposed butter factory, Euroa is a small Victorian town with a population of around 3000. My association with the town is strong. My husband Tim grew up there, and at the age of 18, packed his bags in search of further education in the big smoke. This is not the norm as Daryl Wilding-McBride explained in his last Flying Robot School (FRS) blog post. Research shows that Year 12 students in rural Victoria are 20% less likely to continue to university for various reasons, including cost, ambition and school completion levels. This is one of the major reasons that Pete Cohen and Daryl Wilding-McBride started FRS, and why I leapt at the opportunity to put Euroa forward as a school that FRS should visit.

And on April 18, we made it all happen.

Robot Flying School Euroa Group Photo

Students from Euroa Secondary College and the team from Flying Robot School.

Continuously evolving

As part of our day-to-day work at DiUS, we are bordering on obsessive with the building, measuring and learning approach. We know it’s an integral part of continuously improving which is why we have brought the practice into FRS. After running the first FRS trial in Kyneton, we collected feedback on what went well, what could be improved and what may have confused the students and then made changes to how we approached Euroa Secondary. Here’s a recap of what we learnt.

Using real life applications is a must

Flying drones is fun, but the skill is only part of the fun that can be had when dealing with a remote control object in the sky. We felt that students would absorb what we teach better if we include activities that involved a real life scenario.

Knowing that the students had already learnt a bit about temperature and barometric principles in their studies, we asked them to make some predictions on the correlation between altitude and these two datasets. We then sent the Phantom 2 drone way up into the sky in increments of 10m – with a proudly homemade and custom-designed ‘sensor pod’ strapped securely to it. Daryl considerately based the sensor pod on quite a sophisticated architecture – Arduino – with a radio for receiving commands and beaming back data. This is a great foundation for the students to build upon.

Once our sensing mission was complete, the students created colourful graphs showing the correlation. It was really rousing to see the students could draw on a variety of skills such as scientific methods, maths, engineering – and of course the drone-flying!

Students from Euroa Secondary School

Students from Euroa Secondary College using real life scenarios.

Engaging the community is a winning formula for sustainability

One of the mantras of both DiUS and FRS is sustainability, that is, how FRS can run as an NFP and how the word and good work can spread even when the FRS volunteers are not around. We addressed this in two ways. The first was to encourage local organisations to get involved. At Kyneton’s FRS, DiUS was the stand-alone sponsor, covering all costs for the day. Knowing that one partner would not make FRS sustainable, we approached local businesses to support Euroa Secondary.

We engaged local companies, such as Burton’s Supa IGA and Burke’s Bakery, whereby IGA contributed funds towards purchasing the equipment, fruit and water and Burke’s provided hot food, sandwiches and afternoon sweets. Not only are the students and teachers incredibly grateful for the local support for these types of logistics, but it also gives the local businesses the opportunity to invest in the local kids beyond the sporting clubs they have traditionally supported.

Secondly, we have encouraged the kids to start a Flying Robot Club, based on the inaugural group of FRS students. We don’t plan to create specific rules about what they should do, and how often they should meet. Instead, we have focussed on equipping them with the knowledge and resources to safely fly their new Phantom 2 drone and more importantly, teach other kids how to do the same. This model is going to help us spread the word on the importance of STEM within each of the high schools we reach.

StudentFromEuroaSecondayCollege-BlogImage

Euroa Secondary College student getting ready to fly his drone.

More learning about the basics, less building

The Kyneton FRS experience involved building a custom-designed drone from individual components – if it sounds like a large ask to you, we can safely confirm that it is! Whilst the kids found this fun because it was hands on and interactive, we found that the complexity of the activity made it difficult logistically. Building a reliable robot that you want to send up in the air – all in one day – is hard.

So in Euroa we removed a lot of the building activities from the day and instead focused on the concepts of a quadcopter, including the mechanics of how to fly a Hubsan nano-drone. Hang on wait, what’s a Hubsan nano-drone? Aside from apparently being “2014’s most popular Christmas present for kids”, it’s a smaller version of a drone, smaller than a micro-drone. It was the perfect choice for FRS because it was affordable enough for us to be able to give each student one of their own, to practice their flying skills in their backyards.

The change in focus allowed us to spend more time on safety, real-life aerial sensing missions, and ‘train-the-trainer’ activities, ensuring they had a solid understanding of the principles as well as the confidence to show their fellow students. It also meant we could fly the Phantom 2 more, which the students loved. What’s cool is that FRS donates the Phantom 2 to the school to help them kick off their own Flying Robot Club.

To infinity and beyond

The more we run the FRS program, the more we will learn – and the greater impact we will have. While there are a number of learnings that we have already actioned since the Kyneton FRS, we are still looking for ways to tackle one big challenge – encouraging more girls to join. The Euroa edition attracted some interest from girls, but unfortunately they were unable to make it due to Saturday sport clashes. We *think* we have identified a way to address this issue but it will be very much a matter of trial and error.

Our next adventure will be Boort Secondary College. Both Kyneton and Euroa were run on a Saturday, but Boort will be run *drum roll*… on a school day! Yep. FRS is going to be injected into a normal school day as an incursion at Boort Secondary. This will help test some assumptions we’ve made about the program and will also give us the opportunity to reach more females. Stay tuned for the recap after June 19.

Daryl Wilding-McBride and Paula Ngov from Flying Robot School

The team from Flying Robot School.

So, how can you help?

FRS is slowly building momentum and may broaden its volunteer base in the future.

  • If you’d like to join us, please get in touch through flyingrobotschool.org
  • Know of any teachers or principals at regional schools that are passionate about broadening their STEM program? Connect the dots for us!
  • If you know of any organisations that may like to support the cause, we would love an introduction as Hubsan nano-drones and Phantom 2s don’t grow on trees.
  • Lastly, if you like the work we do, follow us on twitter and tell us, as well as your friends. You never know where one conversation can lead.

What is Flying Robot School?

Flying Robot School is a new initiative aimed at encouraging kids at country public schools to use technology that serves a useful purpose, and to consider careers along the same lines. We aim to do that by teaching them as much as possible about flying robots in a day – the principles, technology, safety guidelines and how they can be used in real life situations. We encourage them to continue improving the capabilities of the robot after the day by adding sensors, running experiments with it, and getting better at flying it. The idea is to have fun and learn a lot at the same time.

We encourage students to make technology that improves the world, and not only to consume technology made by others. We think this is important for their development, for our community, and for Australia.