Pilot Number 1: Manassas Park High School

"Mr. Barrett, now we can get that ball that we lost a long time ago!"

One of the high school students at Manassas Park High School came up with a solution to retrieving the balls from gym class that had become stuck high above the stage (and out of reach of a ladder) - with a quadcopter. This student's idea came after participating in the New DaVinci quadcopters program that was introduced to the high school by the ETA team.

In May 2015, our team began our first "pilot" week for New DaVinci, with the public high school students in Manassas Park, Virginia, near Washington, DC.

The core concept of the New DaVinci program is to provide students with hands-on experience with robotics, programming, modeling, and 3-D printing. Our goal is to spark interest and inspire passion for technology, while maintaining an emphasis on creativity and innovation. We don't just want to create more technologists; we want to create 21st century Renaissance men and women.

The key to teaching emerging technologies with New DaVinci is accessibility to students. We want to provide the opportunity, that might not otherwise be available, for students to experiment and hopefully develop an interest in technology. The program is designed for incorporation into standard school curricula and does not cost anything to the host schools. Once the program is complete, the students take home their robot kits, provided by a donor corporation, and have access to open-source materials and software to continue their exploration.

For the Manassas pilot, we brought in Chromebooks, 3-D printers, and quadcopters into Manassas Park High School. Each day, we transformed the MPHS cafeteria and commons area into a quadcopter test flight area and 3-D printing laboratory. The students, a combination of the classes of teachers Christy Reavis and Everton Barrett, became programmers, 3-D modelers, and drone pilots for the week. Several of these students had no previous experience with robotics or programming.

Each student was given their own Parrot "Rolling-Spider" Minidrone and a Chromebook running our New DaVinci application in the Chrome browser. The application has a Google Blockly-based interface that guides beginners into creating programs with draggable blocks instead of typing difficult code syntax. It's like "Hour of Code," but with command blocks representing code to control physical robots. The students were able to very quickly assemble the command blocks into programs and then use more complete structures such as loops. By only the end of Day 1, the 9th-12th graders all had the opportunity to fly a quadcopter and to learn how programming relates to robotics and flight mechanics.

On Day 2 of the New DaVinci pilot week, we shifted the focus from robotics and programming to 3-D modeling and printing. When the students arrived, they saw our 3-D printers actively printing example models and even a small replica of their teacher. They investigated the printers and asked our team great questions about printer function and the feasibility of replacing current projects with those created by a 3-D printer. The high schoolers were also very interested in how the 3-D modeling and printing could relate to college classes and careers. They could see the connection between jobs that exist today and how they could be changed and replaced with emerging technologies. Since Manassas Park High school has provided a 3-D printer to Mr. Everton's computer lab, the students can now print their own models after the pilot is complete.

As part of the modeling instruction, we illustrate how 3-D models can be created from either design software or by "scanning" objects. The students saw the process of "scanning" a person into a 3-D model that could then be used in a video game, movie, or for 3-D printing (like the scan we did previously of their teacher).

We also introduced them to the free online design software, Tinkercad. The students learned how to create models from scratch and to load and customize some models that we created in advance. After the quick introduction, the students were enjoying adding their names to the models and completing a set of "Drone Pilot Wings" that we printed for them using our 3-D printers.

On the final day of our Manassas Park High School pilot, the high school students had the opportunity to learn more advanced quadcopter programming and to write more complex programs. We paired the students together so that they could collaborate and program their robots as a pair.

We used the stage area in the cafeteria in addition to some pool noodles, hula hoops, and other objects to create a quadcopter obstacle course. We gave the teams some general directions and guidance, but the students discovered on their own how combinations of code and sensors onboard the quadcopter could get them through the obstacle course. The teams were immediately successful in writing test programs and working together to solve problems. They not only optimized their programs, but they also devised ways that the quadcopter design could be improved to provide more stable flights.

Finally, we gave the teams a chance to try "reactive" programming, or sending their commands in real-time to the quadcopter. Using the arrow and letter keys on the keyboard, they were able to send commands to their robot. In some teams, the student split up the keyboard commands between the pair so they could execute faster. The students learned how to more accurately pilot the quadcopter and how the programming they learned can relate to video games and other kinds of remote-controlled robots.

Before the New da Vinci pilot at Manassas Park High school, only 30% of the students had ever experienced programming, 3-D modeling, or working with robotics. During the program, they were excited about the hands-on exercises, but they were also thinking about how these technologies would affect their future.

"This experience was an amazing one for me. My teachers always told me that STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) would be the next big thing and after this week of the New DaVinci Program, I believe them."

After the New da Vinci pilot, nearly 90% of the students said the program might or would certainly affect their future course selections in high school and college. Whereas before there might have been 10 students from these classes graduating with an interest in technology, now there will be closer to 25 students.

Posted by Linda Nichols

Linda Nichols
Linda Nichols is a software developer with more than 10 years experience in several different industries. In addition to writing code, Linda has a passion for community involvement and education in the arts and robotics. She is the organizer of Norfolk.js, NodeBots Norfolk, and several other local classes and workshops in her home of Norfolk, VA. She holds a Bachelor of Arts from Old Dominion University and a Masters in Information Technology from Virginia Tech.