Rice Drone Camp 2017 – Expanding Horizons in STEM

During the week of June 12th-16th, RCEL hosted the 3rd Annual Rice Drone Camp – an intensive STEM enrichment program for 7th-8th grade students. Through a highly competitive application process, 20 students were selected to attend the 5-day program hosted at Rice University by the Rice Center for Engineering Leadership (RCEL).

Rice Drone Camp students conducting field research on environmental uses of drones at the Houston ZOO.

Developed by Dyan Gibbens (CEO of Trumbull Unmanned) and Dr. Cesare Wright (RCEL Lecturer and Leadership & Outreach Specialist), the Rice Drone Camp offers a unique opportunity for students to learn about cutting-edge advances in technology from university faculty, industry professionals, Air Force pilots, and a variety of content area experts. Through sponsorships from BP, Microsoft, and Trumbull Unmanned, all students attend 100% tuition free.

Dyan Gibbens (CEO Trumbull Unmanned) demonstrating industry applications for UAVs at Rice Drone Camp.

Dyan Gibbens, who has spoken at several recent White House panels on STEM education and environmental sustainability, highlights the camp as an ideal vehicle for engaging kids from traditionally underrepresented backgrounds, adding, "I wish I could have gone to Drone Camp when I was their age!  These kids come from exceptionally diverse backgrounds, and nearly half are female - an amazing statistic when you consider that the national average for girls self-selecting into STEM programs is around 13%, and only 18% of college engineering degrees are awarded to women.  What's more impressive is that our selection process is based solely on academic competitiveness and enthusiasm for learning!"

Dr. Wright, who recently contributed an article on STEM education to Drone 360 Magazine, describes the camp as a pipeline to the global tech economy of the future, “Our goal with the Rice Drone Camp is to expand horizons, both literally and figuratively. By introducing students to the exciting possibilities of emergent UAS/UAV technologies, we engage them in STEM learning that is fun and relevant, while also preparing them to be competitive in higher education and next generation technical careers.”

Students examining Trumbull Unmanned prototype of UAV mounted methane sensor.

The program consists of applied exercises and lecture sessions on such topics as sensor design, aerodynamics, GPS and control systems, automation and machine learning, and the engineering design process. As a supplement to traditional classroom learning, the program aligns with federal and state education standards by providing an authentic context for practicing core math, science, and literacy skills. In order to better understand the social impact of technology, students also explore key ethical, cultural, and political issues relating to the societal use of drones.

Of course, we couldn’t call it a “drone camp” if we didn’t include hands-on flight training! Rice Drone Camp students each received a free Parrot Mambo drone this year. Trey Gibbens (Parrot Youth Ambassador) provided an overview of best practices for UAV operation and safety, and students practiced flying during daily sessions.

Flying the Parrot Mambo drone in the Rice University academic quad.

The 2017 Rice Drone Camp also featured a series of field trips to the Houston Zoo, BP Helios Education Center, and Microsoft Technology Center. During the visit to the Houston Zoo, students were tasked with conceptualizing a drone solution that would improve the lives of animals in the wild or enhance the zoo experience of the future. Following a tour of the BP facilities at the Helios Education Center, campers engaged in an interactive presentation and discussion on cutting-edge uses of virtual reality and visualization technology with Dave Truch (BP Technology Director for Information Technology and Services). During our visit to Microsoft, Paul DeCarlo (Sr. Software Development Engineer) presented on the most recent advances in machine learning, coding for autonomous systems, and “Internet of Things” applications.

Each year, the camp culminates in a team design and pitch project. Working in groups of four, students develop a concept for a drone related technical solution to a real-world problem. Over the course of the week, teams use the insights gained during technical sections to refine their project proposals. This exercise allows students to practice technical and critical thinking skills, while also developing teamwork and leadership abilities.

Demo of virtual reality and visualization technology with Dave Truch at BP Helios Education Center.

In addition to providing a valuable STEM learning experience for middle school students, the Rice Drone Camp offers a practical opportunity for RCEL Engineering Leadership Certificate students to practice their leadership and coaching skills. Each team of four middle school students is assigned to a Rice undergraduate mentor, who provides guidance throughout the week, and assists the group in formulating a compelling and market viable project proposal. RCEL undergraduate coaches for 2017 included Emma Baker (Mechanical Engineering), Sonia Mulayath (Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering), Charlene Pan (Bioengineering), James Phillips (Mechanical Engineering), and Samuel Soyebo (Mechanical Engineering).

“Drone camp gave me a chance to teach the students things I wish I had known at that age,” said James Phillips. “They reminded me of myself in middle school – so curious about how things work and always wanting to know more. It was truly rewarding to be a mentor to my team.”

“It was an honor to be able to work with these incredibly talented students,” said Emma Baker. “I was most impressed with their understanding of the new technology and the development of their leadership skills in just one week! I can truly say that my team taught me as much as I taught them.”

On the final day of the camp, teams received communications and presentation coaching from RCEL communications faculty member, Dr. Beata Krupa, before pitching their ideas to an interdisciplinary panel of experts in the “Owl Tank” Pitch Contest.

Winning team members Soraya, Kyle, Dora, and Andrew receive their RCEL coins with coach Emma Baker.

The winning concept for 2017 was the “Rice Police Drone” – a UAS (unmanned aerial system) law enforcement solution, designed to assist police officers in a variety of situations, including traffic stops, surveillance, and suspect interaction. Other pitch concepts included a drone-based audio-visual enhancement system for concerts; a forest fire detection and alert system; a sub-sea wildlife tracking drone that assists animals during environmental disasters; and a veterinary research drone that monitors endangered animals in their natural habitat with limited human interaction.

Reflected in these projects is a commitment to using technology to solve environmental challenges and improve society - a mandate that Dyan Gibbens identifies as central to the mission of Trumbull Unmanned. According to Gibbens, "With Drone Camp, we wanted to empower young adults to view technology as a tool to solve our world's most technically challenging problems."

Kathleen Martinez (BP Sr. Director of National Strategic Relationships), whose team has supported the Rice Drone Camp since its launch in 2015, describes the program as “a model for education enrichment, which exemplifies the benefits of cross-disciplinary institutional partnerships. The collaboration of industry, academia, and the non-profit sector fosters engaging, high-impact, socially relevant education programming that prepares the youth of today for the competitive technology industry of tomorrow.”

Tyler Donovan, an Episcopal High School student, shared a more personal insight into why programs like Rice Drone Camp are valuable for kids.  After participating as a guest panelist for the College and Career Discussion, Donovan commented, "I was so impressed with the range of science, teamwork and leadership the students were exposed to during Rice Drone Camp. It's important to make learning fun, and to help kids discover their passions early and realize that their opinions really matter. This helps set them up for a lifetime of learning, and shows them ways that they can contribute to the world." 

College and Career Discussion Panel w/ Emma Baker and Sammy Soyebo (RCEL coaches), Cindy Yeilding (BP Senior Vice President), Dr. Cesare Wright (RCEL Lecturer and Leadership Specialist), Dyan Gibbens (CEO Trumbull Unmanned), and Tyler Donovan (BP volunteer).

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