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Summer Camp Students Build Drones, Explore STEM Careers

The 40 campers came from as far away as Wisconsin. Split into two teams, they waited with their flight controllers in hand at either end of Virginia Tech’s 300-foot-long drone park.

One by one, each camper walked to the edge of the net, aimed the controller at the drone on the other side of the net, and pushed the throttle forward. The drone hummed and floated off a wooden starting block, its four tiny propellers spinning furiously. The students pushed the joysticks up, down, right, left, trying to maneuver the drone toward an orange landing pad. The closer they got, the more points they earned.

The little quadcopters, just 150 grams each, swooped upward and swerved from side to side before touching down on the grass. A few crashed into the netting. One camper zoomed straight to the target, landed, then took off again and dropped the drone gracefully back onto the starting block.

The contest was the culmination of Virginia Tech’s very first drone camp. Every drone had been built by the campers themselves over the preceding week. Now, with their families — and a few family dogs — looking on, the rising seventh through ninth graders got to show off their handiwork.

The camp was part of the Imagination series developed by the Center for the Enhancement of Engineering Diversity in the College of Engineering to give underserved students an entry point into STEM fields.

Kim Lester, the center’s director of pre-college programs, said drones are a natural fit for Imagination.

“Sometimes technology is so abstract that it’s hard for kids to really connect with it,” she said. “Drones are engaging. They’re in the news. Middle school students know what they are, and the technology can be very accessible and hands on.”

The campers, all rising seventh through ninth graders, built their drones themselves over the course of the week, picking up engineering skills along the way. Photo by Peter Means for Virginia Tech.

The center developed the drone camp curriculum in collaboration with the Virginia Tech Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership (MAAP), the university’s Federal Aviation Administration-designated drone test site, and Wing, the Google sister company that launched the country’s first residential drone delivery service in Christiansburg in 2019.

Lester works with nonprofits, communities, and other partners to reach kids beyond the typical cohort that flocks to STEM camps. More than 60 percent of the students at the drone camp identified as Black or Hispanic. For more than 40 percent of them, neither parent had a four-year college degree.

“The families of the kids that we try to recruit for the Imagination camps are often not aware of what’s possible,” she said. “The technology to fill out an online application can be daunting. Transportation is a barrier. There are so many barriers that can keep families from pursuing an experience like this.”

Lester’s group tries to remove as many of those roadblocks as possible. All expenses for the six-day residential camp were covered, thanks to funding from Wing, MAAP, the Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science, and the Kevin T. Crofton Department of Aerospace and Ocean Engineering.

Building the drones was the main attraction. Over the course of a few days, piles of circuit boards, tiny bolts, lightweight black frames, and clear plastic propellers became a fleet of 40 nimble racing drones. Each drone’s quartet of motors had to be placed in the correct positions; each flight controller had to be oriented the same way as the drone it was paired with. Engineers and pilots from MAAP and Virginia K-12 teachers looked on, guiding the campers through the process and helping them troubleshoot snags.

Toby Tracy, the MAAP engineer who led the build, said he could see the sense of accomplishment on the campers’ faces when they brought up their finished drones to plug them in for the first time.

“This was the make-or-break moment,” he said. “You check for the colored lights that tell you the receiver is talking to the transmitter. You flip the drone on and make sure all the motors are spinning. I taught them why I was using a multimeter. It was really an ‘aha’ moment. Being able to teach them something I love was just great.”

The rest of the week’s activities gave the students some context for where that “aha” moment could take them.

A careers panel introduced the students to drone pilots in fields from filmmaking to journalism to emergency management. At the Wing site in Christiansburg, they were treated to a behind-the-scenes look at all the moving parts it takes to make a real-life drone delivery operation tick. They got a tour of the Stability Wind Tunnel and heard from Christine Gilbert, assistant professor of aerospace and ocean engineering, about research that could lead to new methods of propulsion.

If the students had any doubts about the value of their new skills, visits by officials from the Federal Aviation Administration dispelled them. Abigail Smith, the deputy executive director of the FAA’s UAS Integration Office, and project manager Diana Robinson explained just how many jobs the expanding drone industry is creating for pilots and technicians (86,000 just in the next year) and told the campers about outreach programs the FAA has created for students interested in those jobs.

By the end of the week, all 40 students had passed the FAA’s TRUST test on safety and regulations, which is required to fly as a recreational pilot; many of them were already asking about the more advanced certification for flying commercially.

“We took them from absolutely zero drone knowledge to being proficient hobbyists,” Tracy said. “They have the knowledge and the mindset now to get involved.”

Lester agreed that the transformation was remarkable.

“What always amazes me with these kids is the vocabulary and technical expertise that they develop,” she said. “I will ask them what various parts are and what they do, and I am always blown away by everything they know. I don’t even think they realize how far they’ve come from the first day.”

Like all the Imagination programs, the drone camp wasn’t intended to just provide a fun STEM experience for a week in the summer. The team hoped that it would spark something bigger.

“We want to expose kids to a broader view of what a career in STEM or engineering can look like,” Lester said. “And just spending a week on a college campus can make a difference. For some of these kids, especially the first-generation students, seeing themselves on campus, navigating a dining hall and a residence hall, can help them envision a future they might not have considered otherwise. Now maybe going to college is a possibility, because they can picture themselves doing it.”

The pipeline Lester and her team are building seems to be paying off: Lester is starting to see more and more of the Imagination campers return to participate in the center’s programs for older students.

She said a unique benefit of the drone camp was that the funding from Wing and the other sponsors allowed every camper to take home a working drone at the end of the week.

“They take what they learned here and it doesn’t end here,” she said.

One camper’s parent told Lester in an email that her son was so captivated by the experience that he was hatching plans for his own drone racing team and researching the cost of netting to convert their backyard into a miniature suburban version of the drone park.

But the best testaments to the camp’s success came from the students themselves, who gushed about learning to build and fly their own aircraft and recounted their plans to become drone pilots and coders and engineers. One camper summed it up in her final note to the staff: “I cannot wait to use all I learned in the real world some day.”

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