Campus News

Drones offer campers learning experience outside the classroom

High school students attending the GIS Summer Camp learn how to fly drones and radio-controlled at Cradle Beach camp on the shore of Lake Erie. Photos: Douglas Levere

By ROBBY JOHNSON

Published July 19, 2018

“I think how science can be adapted to real problems is the best part of this.”
Le Wang, professor of geography and co-organizer
GIS Summer Camp

The high school students stared at the sky in awe as a drone continued to climb in altitude Monday morning over Cradle Beach, a campground on the shore of Lake Erie in Angola.

Piloting the drone was Le Wang, a professor in UB’s Department of Geography. Wang had just finished a quick lecture for the kids on remote sensing and now he was putting the concept into practice.

The drone, a DJI Phantom 4, was equipped with a camera and sent a live video feed to a smart phone connected to its remote. With the live feed, Wang could direct the drone out of sight as he took overlapping photos of the lakeshore.

This flying exercise was part of this year’s GIS Summer Camp, presented by UB’s Geo-Technology Experiences for Students and Teachers (GTEST) project. The project, funded by a three-year award from the National Science Foundation, aims to teach concepts and skills of geo-technology to high-potential high school students from high-need areas.

“These are very motivated students and they ask very good questions,” Wang said. “They want to learn new knowledge and incorporate what they’re taught in class to the real world. When they later pursue undergraduate degrees, they’ll have some prior knowledge on how things like geospatial data can be used for real-world applications, so that is really the impact we’re trying to reach here.”

GTEST is a multidisciplinary effort at UB, with faculty members from five different departments taking part. Helping Wang at Cradle Beach this day was Joseph A. Gardella Jr., the John and Frances Larkin Professor of Chemistry; Ling Bian, professor of geography; John Cerne, professor of physics; Xiufeng Liu, professor of learning and instruction; and Sandro Sodano, associate professor of counseling, school and educational psychology.

After flying along the lakeshore, the drone was steered back to the now-huddled group of faculty, teachers and kids as they prepared to be photographed by the drone. Little work was needed to get the drone back to its launch spot because, with just a push of a button, it navigated itself back using its GPS.

Now, it was Cerne’s time to shine after the flying exercise on the beach. The group moved to a grassy field not far from the beach and organized itself into the letters “U” and “B” for another photo opportunity. After that, Cerne brought out his radio-controlled plane and quadcopter.

The quadcopter was the first to be sent into the sky, with Cerne praising its ability to move rapidly in all sorts of directions due to its four rotors. Once he was done showing off its basic functions, he instructed the quadcopter to perform some tricks to wow the crowd. The students were much louder now, and seemed to be enjoying every second of the copter tumbling and flipping in the air.

That was until the quadcopter took a quick nosedive into the ground.

“Unfortunately I haven’t practiced with this one in a while, but you get the point,” Cerne laughed.

Results were much better with the much larger, radio-controlled plane as it weaved around the airspace. Cerne also showed how the plane could hover in one spot by pointing its propeller up before letting go of it.

Afterward, everyone ventured back to the Jim Kelly House, where as the students had the opportunity to fly a small drone and radio-controlled plane themselves. There was even a flight simulator set up on a laptop.

Cerne helped students fly the smaller radio-controlled plane around the room. Amazingly, the plane weighed just 14 grams, so no one was hurt when it spiraled out of control and hit a couple of people.

But as each student became more adept with flying the plane, Cerne gave up more control from the extra remote he carried.

“I have a lot of fun with this and I think it’s great to see that the kids are enthusiastic and want to learn,” he said. “This is not an easy thing; there’s a lot of physical and mental learning involved in flying these things. I think this technology is really cool and that kids nowadays take it for granted. For me to do something like make a radio-controlled plane that’s 14 grams is pretty incredible.”

Cerne also said he loved this flying opportunity because he can talk to the students about the applications that drones and planes like this can have.

“Whenever I try to motivate and teach kids about drones and radio control, I try to teach them what it’s good for, he said. “It’s a $100 billion industry — not only with sales, but for commercial use. It’s really nice to see all of these cool applications, like using them to inspect high-voltage lines. There’s a lot of cool stuff going on with this industry and it’s not just for fun.”

The students were also thankful to have these kinds of experiences at the summer camp, especially because it gets them out of the classroom and offers practical experience.

“We’re doing hands-on things that we can physically touch and impact,” said Shaniylah Welch, a student in the camp. “All you do in a classroom is write down answers on a piece of paper and that’s lame. Instead, we’re on the computer doing 3D modeling or flying drones, which is much better than reading and answering questions all the time. I’m so glad to have this experience.”

Welch’s camp mate Cheyenne Coolidge agreed the real-world application was one of the best things the camp had to offer.

“This has been amazing,” she said. “It’s really important because the stuff we’re learning here is something that we might actually use again someday. You never know when you might need it.”

Wang said he is glad to hear the positive feedback because that real-world application is just what camp organizers have strived for.

“They are very happy that they’ve learned something, but more importantly, that they’ve learned something that has practical use in real life,” he said. “I think how science can be adapted to real problems is the best part of this.”