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Helping Students Build Coding Skills with Drones and Self-Driving Cars

Through a mini grant program, more than three hundred students at Title 1 schools were provided with classroom kits to explore physical computing and how to build smart devices.

Students working on self-driving car project to learn about physical computing

Providing students with opportunities to explore coding gives them critical keys for actively engaging in problem solving today and in the future. Learning to code doesn't only mean writing programs to run on a computer. Physical computing combines circuit building and electronics with code to program smart appliances, cars and other vehicles, machines, and objects we use every day.

Students interested in a wide range of fields, including robotics, engineering, space exploration, health, and self-driving cars, can move beyond introductory circuit-building projects when they add a microcontroller and connect their projects to code.

Exciting New Resources for Physical Computing

Thanks to support from Infosys Foundation USA, Science Buddies developed autonomous car and mini drone lessons for Infosys Pathfinders Online Institute and for the Science Buddies website. With a combination of step-by-step instructions, troubleshooting guides, and videos, these lessons help educators introduce students to circuit building combined with sensors and programming. Through a mini grant program, Science Buddies provided kits for these lessons to educators in US schools where funding for supplies is limited.

With a goal to provide more students, grades 8-12, with an opportunity to explore computer science and physical computing, Science Buddies created the following lessons:

  • Build an Arduino Self-Driving Car: students gain experience building circuits and integrating sensors and then design and code an algorithm for self-driving behavior, such as automatic obstacle avoidance or automatic lane following.
  • Build an Arduino Mini-Drone: students build a mini-drone with an ultrasonic sensor and then write a program to control the altitude and hovering of the drone. (This lesson was developed in partnership with the Gordon A. Cain Center for STEM Literacy at Louisiana State University (LSU).)

(These lessons premiered on the Infosys Pathfinders Online Institute and are now available at Science Buddies.)

Introducing Teachers and Students to Combining Circuits and Coding

In partnership with Infosys Foundation USA, teachers serving more than three hundred students at Title 1 public schools were provided free kits to enable doing either the Build an Arduino Mini-Drone or Build an Arduino Self-Driving Car course at Pathfinders Online Institute. The program was designed to give middle and high school educators an opportunity to gain confidence in introducing and teaching physical computing and to create an exciting opportunity for students to explore programming smart devices. These projects take intermediate robotics projects like building a robotic car or mini drone to the next level by adding programming to control the driving of the car and the hovering of the drone. For many of these teachers and students, these projects were their first experience connecting programming to circuits and sensors.

Sandra Gries teaches a Project Lead the Way class for grades 6-8 at Bailly STEM Academy in Gary, IN. The self-driving car was her first experience adding programming to robotics projects. "Most of the students have never done any programming at all let alone with an Arduino," she notes. Sandra says her students were extremely engaged in the process. "The best part is just seeing students get excited about putting something together and it works."

Philisa Spearman did the Arduino Mini-Drone lesson in her Computer Science Principles course, grades 9-12, at Tattnall County High School in Reidsville, GA. This was the first time she and her students used Arduino and programming for a project like this. "It was a learning experience," she says. "The students enjoyed it." Physical computing projects can take a lot of troubleshooting, but Philisa says the best part was seeing "students light up when they were able to get their drones flying."

N Kalu introduced 7th- and 8th-grade students in the MESA after-school enrichment program at Hosler Middle School in Lynwood, CA to Arduino programming with the self-driving car project. N's students have experience with block-based programming, but coding the self-driving cars was a new experience. "Even for me as an educator, I derived new knowledge from all the materials and resources that were provided. I am confident that I can introduce programming with Arduino as a result of this course."

Students working on self-driving car project
Students building BlueBot cars for the Arduino Self-Driving Car project.

Creating Hands-on Learning Opportunities

Steven Lowe teaches at Pinnacle Canyon Academy in Price, UT. Most students cycle through his 6th-grade middle school robotics and 9th-grade Exploring Computer Science classes. Despite the middle school introduction, Steven says that because access to materials for physical science projects are not available at home, it's often a process of starting over in 9th grade.

"My students liked having something tangible to build," says Steven, noting that the kits were robust and "survived the students." Steven did the Arduino Self-Driving Car and Arduino Mini-Drone lessons with his middle and high school classes and notes that the students did a lot of coding with the car project but especially liked building the drones.

"The best part was showing off the finished projects," says Steven. "The students really enjoyed sharing their pics and videos online with their friends. We also did a robot parade down the hall for the admin at school to see what we've been up to."

Students working on drone project
Students building drones for the Arduino Mini-Drone project.

Bringing Cutting-Edge STEM to Local Classrooms

"It was very important to receive the grant," says Sandra. "Being able to provide the students with activities that are guiding their future is important. I want them to be able to understand that they can have a seat at the table despite the area they live in, the home they live in, and any other deterrent. Opportunities is the key word."

When asked if she will teach these lessons again, Sandra says, "Yes, I am absolutely doing the course again! The students loved it!"

Resources for Students and Educators

To learn more about physical computing projects and coding smart devices, see the following student projects and resources:


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