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How Project-Based Learning Fosters Student Independence

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This post is by Andrew Maya, a 10th grade student at the Gary and Jerri-Ann Jacobs High Tech High.

I thought I knew what I was getting into. I had already built a remote control plane. How hard could building a drone be? Turns out, really hard. For starters, a plane has a motor, an electronic speed controller, a receiver, a battery, and a servos, and it takes off and flies in one direction. Drones are very different because they can fly in all sorts of directions or they can just stay and hover. A drone has tons of individual parts and everything has to work together. If one piece is off, it won't fly.

Maya1.jpg

To launch the project our teacher designed a flight school and training course with a purchased drone. I signed up to try so I would be able to pilot my own drone at the end of the project. Learning to fly the drone was really exciting because it was something I have never done before and to see the video footage from the drone's perspective would be really exciting.

The challenge was to design and build a drone that could drop a paint bomb on a target stencil to create an art piece. The class was asked to design a quadcopter, but I wanted to go one step further and asked to build a hexacopter. I chose to make a hexacopter because I wanted to challenge myself to do something amazing, to make something I knew I couldn't do unless I put in 110 percent. My teacher taught me everything he knew about drones but I had to take it from there. He had never built a hexacopter either. I read articles, watched videos, and learned what components were needed.

What frustrated me the most was not the actual building of the drone but the waiting. I had the frame ready and was ready to start building, but then I realized I didn't have the parts I needed so I had to order them and wait. I was so anxious to see it fly! When the parts arrived I added them to the drone only to discover I needed another missing part!

Finally I had my drone working and it was safe to fly. It was amazing. We attached the camera and bomb dropper, and got ready to go for a bombing run. A giant crowd of people gathered to watch. Using the controller I lifted the drone a foot off the ground. I had no control of the yaw spin and the drone spun in circles. I freaked out and turned off the motors. I was really confused about what could be going wrong. I was also frustrated, so I handed the controller to my teacher. The same thing happened to him, but worse! Eventually we brought the drone back to the classroom to troubleshoot some of the settings on the brain. When we took it outside again we still didn't have control, it just spun in circles. It was so frustrating because we couldn't fix it and we tried everything. We had one more option and that was to factory reset the flight controller. We reprogrammed everything and it started to work!

It was two days before we had to present our project and my drone was finished and it flew. But it didn't fly the way I wanted it to. There was a lot of vibration and it wasn't flying steadily, so I decided to rebuild it the night before exhibition. I just knew I could do better and I wanted my drone to represent my full potential. My teacher and I sat down and opened up the frame file and redesigned it so everything lined up. We transferred every part from the original frame to the new drone. It was about 7:30 pm by the time we stepped out for a test flight. We heard nothing. All the vibration was gone. We were ready to go for exhibition!

At exhibition students and parents watched as my drone dropped paint on the moving stencil target. I was proud to see the drone flying and to say that I built it.

Maya2.jpg

This project taught me that things aren't going to be given to me. I have to figure things out on my own. No one assigned me a job or told me to get back on track. I had to mature and learn to do the work. If I knew I wasn't getting things done I moved myself away from my friends and worked in the office. Once I was done with my drone I was able to use my knowledge to help my classmates.

Building my hexacopter was a life-changing experience. My mindset shifted as I realized that I now have the power to solve complex problems on my own.

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