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Drones take flight in hands-on science lesson to Mapleton students

Mastering Physics Through Drones


For about an hour on Wednesday, Sept. 14, parts of Dr. Sarah Hartman’s York International classroom became the Nile River Valley. Small, black drones buzzed over sheets of paper on the physics teacher’s floor, flown by her students, simulating how much larger drones might travel between cities to deliver badly needed water filtration units.

The scene was one of Mapleton’s first use of drones as teaching tools. Through a computer science grant from the Colorado Department of Education, the District partnered with the Denver nonprofit MindSpark for its award-winning Drone Project, which “elevates student learning through real-world application with authentic hands-on problem-solving experiences.”

Mapleton physics and design teachers attended a two-day training course for the Drone Project this past summer to learn how to operate the drones and incorporate them into their curriculum. This meant that the Nile flyover exercise wasn’t a lesson in how to play with remote-control toys, but rather a practical way to calculate velocity. Student groups first needed to find the most efficient routes to deliver water to six cities of their choice along a 4,000-mile-long stretch. Then the groups measured how fast real delivery drones would travel those routes by scaling them down, depicting them on 11-foot swaths of paper.

“It’s more complicated than just figuring out how many meters are in a mile, which is something you can easily Google,” Hartman said. “You need to know the math for this, and this teaches them how to do that using dimensional analysis.”

Gavin S., a York International junior, watches as a fellow student pilots a drone in their physics class.

Gavin S., a junior in Dr. Hartman’s class, said his pretend flight from Jinja, Uganda, to Cairo, Egypt, and back was flawless, and that he really enjoyed this method of learning.

“Usually, science can be kind of boring, like looking at graphs and tables on a computer and stuff, but this is the most fun I’ve had in a science class,” he said. “It definitely helps everything sink in better and I wish we could use drones in my other classes.”

Beyond math and science, the drone projects are meant to help develop students’ communication and collaboration skills, which are necessary for their futures in the workforce. Students in each group had a role to play, from pilots to timers and data collectors.

Lisette C., a senior, appreciated how this connected her group. “I think it’s really interesting and it gets a lot of people engaged in the activities. It’s a really fun thing,” she said.

Hartman said she is planning a couple of other projects that would involve drones and even discussed the potential of teaching coding with another instructor.