Meghan Salter’s LinkedIn page boasts two seemingly incongruous qualifications: “National Board Certified Teacher” and “FAA Certified Drone Pilot.”
But to her students, the connection is no mystery. Four years ago, Salter invited a tech-savvy friend to talk to her gifted elementary students; he brought a presentation on drones with some actual devices to demonstrate.
“I was like, what in the world are these things? They’re like flying robots to me. I had no idea what they were,” said Salter, who teaches 5th-grade gifted students at Martha Elementary School in Huntington, W. Va. “I just noticed when we got the drones out for the students, they were so enamored with what they do. I immediately thought, I’ve got to get some of these for my classroom.”
She’s since written several grant proposals to get $20,000 in funding for a handful of small drones to use as classroom tools, and she’s been developing her own curriculum around drones. They work as a teaching tool and behavior incentive as well as a lifelong learning opportunity for her. She got her drone pilot’s license in 2016, in part as a challenge to herself, and in part to convince parents and other potential skeptics that she was qualified to help students work with drones.
Education Week chatted with Salter on the phone this week to hear more about how drones function in her classroom and why she thinks students benefit from hands-on experiences.
What about the drones stood out initially as intriguing for the classroom?
My big push with getting this technology was, I don’t care if my kids do anything with drones in the future. I want them to know that there are things out there that involve technology if they want to, this is a start for them. It’s fun, it’s easy, it’s kid-friendly. They’re learning about coding, physics of flight, problem solving in general.
I also want to push girls to say you can do these things, it has nothing to do with your gender. We live in Appalachia. The region is not known for being the most educated. I want my students to understand or know that just because they’re from here, that should not reflect on what they can do. I remember growing up, I was like, I can be a teacher, secretary, or nurse. I was never exposed to anything else. These things are out there, you can do them, you’re smart enough to do them. It doesn’t matter if you’re poor or where you come from.
These are the kids that are going to be making strides in the future. If we don’t encourage them now at a younger age, we’re doing a disservice.
What role do the drones play in the classroom?
If I get the drones out, the kids are so excited to use those things. You can use it as a really good behavior incentive.
We start at the beginning of the year, and we don’t do it every single day, but they start learning the physics of flight, they learn the NATO phonetic alphabet, they learn about the acronyms the FAA uses. We put together a portfolio, and they get a mini Part 107 drone license at the end of the year.
After we do all these tasks, we do something called the Drone Olympics. The kids compete in Olympic events that simulate real-world scenarios with drones. In the classroom, we made a Lego city of Huntington, and then the kids used the drones to try to transport an organ from one hospital to the other hospital. (The simulation mimicked this organ transplant last year at the University of Maryland.)
Obviously we have drone racing. That’s a big thing. We talk about how Amazon and lots of other places are developing ways to use drones to move packages. We talk about dropping medications and disaster reliefs. Each one of the things we do at the Drone Olympics simulates how drones are being used now. It’s a really cool day for the kids, they’re put into teams, they get a tie-dye shirt. We invite the community. The kids get to showcase what they have learned.
How have your colleagues and the community reacted to your use of drones?
They know me as the technology lady, even though I really feel like I don’t know much about the technology. My colleagues are very receptive with a lot of this stuff. They always know in my classroom we’re always problem solving and we’re doing different things.
As far as the community goes, everyone’s really receptive to helping out. I’m not ashamed to ask people to come into my classroom and do stuff. That’s how you get ideas and that’s how you progress as a person.
What’s the most difficult part of incorporating these tools into the classroom?
When I started doing these and as I’m doing it now, there’s still very little curriculum out there. We still have to create almost everything. You can get a little bit of resources online but there’s not that much. There’s not that handbook there. It’s so new that there really is very little curriculum.
How do you deal with potential safety issues that could arise?
I’m overly cautious with my kids. We use the little drones you can use inside. You can run those things into I don’t know how much stuff and they’ll bounce right back. The kids always have to wear safety goggles and safety glasses. I do not want a kid getting a propeller in the eye. You can stick your finger in the propeller but it’s rarely gonna cut you.
There’s been a couple drones that have flown into some hair, made for some really tough times to get a knot out. That scares a lot of people away. Before I even let the kids get them up and fly them, they’ve got to learn how to get them up and connect everything. They’ve got to make sure they wear their eye protection or we tell them they’re grounded for the day.
What have you still not done that you’d like to do?
I would really like to do the build-your-own drone. My older kids, my 5th graders, I’ve got a lot of students in there with mechanical minds. Getting the build kit where you can build your own drone and do drone racing, the challenges with the kids, having them be responsible for their own drone, building it and competing it. But I haven’t really made it into that realm.
The technology’s changing so quickly. You just don’t know what they’re going to come out with next. The big thing I want to show my students is I want them to use this for good. We’ve talked about how they use drones in war and stuff. I’m not going to pretend that doesn’t happen.
I actually looked the other day, from four years ago, I have some documents that my kids did. I asked what do you think they’ll be doing in the future. One of them said, delivering packages. Another kid said, police drones. These things I’d never imagined were going to happen, they already knew. It just blows me away by how well that they’re able to see those things.
Image: Courtesy of Meghan Salter
A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.