Drone camps take STEM learning to new heights

April 16, 2018

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Dozens of young people explored how drones and other innovative technologies are solving some of the world’s most complex challenges at a series of BP-sponsored events focused on science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).

Service First Family Day brought together middle school students from military families and their parents for a full day of hands-on exercises, demonstrations and discussions about drones, robotics, augmented reality and other cutting-edge technologies. BP is a founding partner of Service First and hosted the camp at its Houston campus.

Created by Rice University faculty, professional engineers, U.S. Air Force pilots and teachers, the program introduced students to engineering design, computer science, and teamwork and leadership skills.

Learning outside the classroom

“Military families often undergo frequent interstate or international moves, which means students may miss out on key learnings due to changes in school curricula,” said Dyan Gibbens, CEO of Trumbull Unmanned and co-founder of Service First. “Our program helps ignite a spark in STEM through experiential, hands-on activities. We want to enhance what students are learning in the classroom, as well as introduce them to people in exciting STEM jobs so they can see first-hand the potential career opportunities available to them.”

Dave Truch, technology director for BP’s digital innovation organization (DIO), spoke with the students about the many ways BP is using drones and other robots to capture data to enhance its operations. He also pointed out the connections between students’ interests — such as playing video games — and their applications in the energy industry.

“Through augmented and virtual reality, the digital world enables us to go through a lot of trial and error without having to build something first,” Truch said. “We emphasized to the students that they can continue to learn by experimenting in the digital world, to help them create something that makes sense in the real world.”

Reaching for the stars

NASA astronaut Tim Kopra, who served in the U.S. Army and is currently a partner at Blue Bear Capital, gave a keynote speech about the importance of education, pointing out that the math, history and English lessons students learn in school also have relevance outside the classroom.
He discussed his experiences as former commander of the International Space Station and shared stories of studying at West Point, where as a young cadet he met astronauts who ultimately inspired his own career aspirations.

After a full day of learning, students formed small teams and came up with their own ideas for using drones to solve real-world problems. They created posters and presented their ideas to a panel of judges from BP, Microsoft, Trumbull Unmanned and Rice University. The winning team developed an idea for “medi-drones” — drones that could be used to aid people in emergency medical situations.

Supporting military families

Throughout the day, the students’ parents attended career development and training workshops. They heard from veteran service organizations about resources that are available to them as they transition to civilian careers, and experts from Rice University and BP spoke about continuing education and career alignment.

“BP and Service First share a commitment to promoting STEM education and supporting military families,” said Kathleen Martinez, senior director, national strategic relationships. “This program does an outstanding job of preparing students — and their parents — to take on the high-tech jobs that make up our world’s ever-expanding global economy.”

Celebrating a ‘day of drones’

The DIO team and Trumbull Unmanned also visited the Village School in Houston, where nearly 100 fourth-graders got an up-close look at everything from virtual reality to robotics to drones. Through the day, students visited a series of hands-on activity stations to explore the technologies, including trying out immersive virtual reality tools, maneuvering a robotic crawler through a maze, and flying a small drone through a hoops course.

Morag Watson, vice president and chief digital innovation officer at BP, spoke with the students about the many ways energy is used in their daily lives and how BP uses innovative technologies in its operations.

“With the reducing numbers of students entering STEM education and therefore STEM careers, it is important that we try and capture their minds early,” said Watson. “One way to start doing this is by engaging elementary children in various technology innovations and our industry in a fun and motivating way. This gives them just a small glimpse at what their future world will look like, and starts a dialogue on the many possibilities that they hold.”