Flying toward the future

RCEL drone camp inspires middle school students, provides mentorship opportunities for Rice students and alumni 

What do former Air Force pilots, Rice faculty members, drone experts and industry engineers have in common? A passion for educating future generations of science, technology, engineering and mathematics students.

Just such a group gathered at Rice Aug. 11-13 to share their experiences and knowledge with a group of 20 sixth- to ninth-grade students at the Rice Center for Engineering Leadership’s (RCEL) drone camp.

The students — all from diverse ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds — spent three days learning how to design, engineer and operate drone aircraft as well as gaining hands-on experience piloting drones. The intensive camp also explored the ethical and socio-cultural implications of this emergent technology, said camp organizer Cesare Wright, an RCEL lecturer and outreach/leadership specialist.

“Our kids aren’t just learning how to operate or fly drones, they’re also learning about the engineering, the science and the math behind building drones, about the future of drones and how we can take this technology and do socially meaningful things,” Wright said. “One of the things we have stressed throughout this camp is not only the technology but also the fact that technology is inherently social: They’re not just making cool things, but cool things that people will use in the real world.”

But why drones?

Preparing students for the jobs of tomorrow requires not only a quality education, but also a strong foundation in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), Wright said.

“A key element of our STEM strategy is to support curriculum-based programs that excite students in STEM pathways,” said Wright. “Drones offer an ideal vehicle for sparking student interest and encouraging them to develop invaluable math and science skills.”

He said RCEL worked with Houston Independent School District teachers and with district media specialist Shelea Majors to align the camp’s curriculum with Texas education standards and ensure that the experience reinforced traditional classroom instruction.

“The drone camp is designed to engage students in the applied practice and teamwork scenarios that are often difficult to replicate in a more conventional classroom setting,” Wright said.

Many sides of outreach

Dyan Gibbens, an Air Force Academy graduate, pilot and founder of Trumbull Unmanned, a Houston-based firm that helps energy companies adopt drone technology, has worked with RCEL to secure internships for Rice students. The drone camp was born from a brainstorming session Gibbens had with industry partner and camp sponsor BP on ways to promote STEM to middle schoolers. She immediately thought, “RCEL was the perfect place for it.”

Wright agreed that by partnering with Trumbull Unmanned and BP, RCEL’s drone camp would not only expose 20 Houston-area students to STEM fields, but also provide enrichment prospects for RCEL students.

“This camp is not only an opportunity to reach out to the community but it also gives us an opportunity to offer our students real-world applied leadership opportunities to mentor, coach and lead K-12 students,” Wright said.

Olawale Lawal, a graduate student in materials science and nanoengineering, was approached by his research adviser, Dean of Engineering Ned Thomas, to participate in STEM outreach programs offered by the department. As a graduate of the Air Force Academy, he seemed a perfect fit for the drone camp.

“This camp isn’t just a good thing — it’s a great thing!”
— Olawale Lawal, graduate student

“This camp isn’t just a good thing — it’s a great thing!” Lawal said. “I’m here to give them my own life experience from my military background and how I’m involved in flight and drones.”

When Lawal graduates, he will become a military development engineer in the Air Force. He will work on aircraft development, improving aircraft structure and flight.

“I didn’t get to experience anything like this until my junior year in college and now these kids are doing all this in middle school. Its incredible,” Lawal said. “When these students get to a higher level of learning they’re really going to be prepared.”

Next generation of STEM leaders

High school freshman Michael Martell, 14, became interested in the camp after his mother, who works in the engineering field, suggested he apply.

“I really wanted to get an idea of what she does at work,” Martell said. “I’m learning a lot of stuff about engineering I didn’t know and robotics too.”

And while they are having opportunities to fly drones and explore the science behind them, Martell said, he was surprised by the political and socio-economical implications associated with drones.

“I really didn’t think there’d be a lot of laws applying to drones but there really are,” Martell said. “You can’t fly them over a certain height, and you’re only supposed to use them for a distance that you can see with your eyes.”

Seventh grader Elizabeth Johns-Krull, 12, said she has considered becoming an engineer, but the camp was the first exposure to drones.

“I didn’t realize how many different kinds of drones there were until I came to this camp,” Johns-Krull said. “They’re really hard to control.”

While they don’t have time to build their own drones — premade kits can take graduate students a week to assemble — the campers did conduct experiments in aerodynamics and were able to apply their findings to drone science.

“We made paper airplanes to test aerodynamics and then applied modifications to them like they would on real flying craft,” Johns-Krull said.

Alumnus Julian Castro ’13, praised RCEL’s outreach program and said similar STEM experiences when he was younger helped lead him toward his profession as a subsea engineer at BP.

“I got involved with things like this when I was younger, that helped continue my interest in science and engineering through high school and college,” Castro said. “It’s great — kind of the circle of life — now I get to come back here and inspire the next generation of scientists and engineers.”





About Arie Passwaters

Arie Wilson Passwaters is editor of Rice New.