Build, Use, Damage, Mend and Adapt – an approach to learning through and about drones

A guest post by Ed Charlwood

What follows describes the work I’ve been doing in school that has led to me to set up a new Drones in Schools Google+ community for teachers.

A convergence of influences

As with much curriculum development, serendipity did its job at the outset of this endeavour, bringing together the opportunities offered by (1) the new GCSE and A Level specifications and their broader content requirements, (2) a growing dissatisfaction with a certain high-profile external “design / engineering” competition that really requires very little design and (3) the discovery of a very interesting little kit. Firstly, the long-awaited publication of the new GCSE and A Level specifications really was a wake up call that we could not continue to plough the same RM / Product Design furrow at either qualification level. I felt it important to embrace the specification in its entirety and that meant that at Latymer we would have to teach areas that were less familiar i.e. Systems and Control and Textiles. It also meant that we could fully embrace previously fringe areas that we had been pushing at for a few years but had been confined by old assessment criteria, namely the use of CAD, CAM and the circular economy. Secondly, I have seen our students be equally engaged and frustrated with external engineering competitions, they promised a glimpse into the competitive world of high level engineering but actually offered little real decision making, restrictive and difficult manufacturing processes and actually required a lot of luck and frivolous administration. I won’t name names. Lastly I came across a $99 / £78 kit from Flexbot, offering a 3D printable drone and the promise of an open source kit. A quick PayPal purchase later and I was the proud owner of a Flexbot Quadcopter (4 rotors), cleverly packaged, with a comprehensive and appropriate information booklet and a product that worked pretty much straight out for the box and could fly via an iPhone app. Bingo.

Drones are a great ‘hook’ for learning

Drones are popular in the media, comprehensible to most people and on a steep curve of becoming demonstrably better and cheaper at the same time. Currently they have the elusive “engagement factor” and this provides a ‘hook’ making them intrinsically attractive to students. Such a hook is, in my experience, vital. It is important to note that we are not coding experts, nor are we overly interested in programming. But we are interested in using electronics to do stuff. And it is here that the Flexbot Quadcopter meets our teaching intentions.

Our approach

Under the guidance of my colleague Nick Creak we handed the kit over to our students. They assembled the drone without difficulty. Then they had a play, crashed it and naturally broke it. They took the kit apart and made some key measurements, download CAD files from the Flexbot Wiki (SketchUp) and Thingiverse (.stl) and printed a replacement for the part for the one they broke. They then began to explore the files and started to design their own drone. Initially they did this by pretty much by simplifying and copying the existing design, a useful process in its own right to develop CAD techniques and collaborative skills.

A 3D printed Flexbot part

We then printed their chassis designs and used the slicing software to investigate various manufacturing options:

  • How long would the print take if it was “ultimate” or “low” quality?
  • What would happen if it had a low / medium / dense fill?
  • What were the implications of the design being aligned differently?

On average a “normal quality” high density print would take 2 hours. The booklet provided by Flexbot also has some interesting text comparing the economics of 3D printed manufacturing vs mass production techniques like injection moulding.

Students then could begin to design “iteratively” – a new key concept in the OCR interpretation of the new specifications.

“Iterative design is a design methodology based on a cyclic process of prototyping, testing, analysing, and refining a product or process. Based on the results of testing the most recent iteration of a design, changes and refinements are made.”

We also offered a number of design challenges: design a modular drone, alter your design to use as little filament as possible (make it cheap!) or to print as quickly as possible, design your drone to use a standard component – in our case this was a Lego axle.

Flexbot parts

The Flexbot circuit is robust enough to be shared between students and the batteries, propellers and motors are cheap enough to buy in bulk. If you do not have a 3D printer, jobs can be specified, costed and outsourced to a 3D print hub. The simulator (which is available once you have started the process of uploading parts for hub to print) shows it would cost approximately £6 for a basic chassis made from PLA by Fused Deposition Modelling. Some hubs even offer 25% student discount and most do almost next day delivery.

We additionally posed a number of extensions questions to our students, each eliciting a different design outcome: What is the effect of changing the alignment of the rotors? How big/small can the drone be? How much weight can it pick up?


Design Decisions Pentagon

David Barlex has produced a design decision pentagon to describe the decisions that students might make when they are designing and making. So I was intrigued to use this to explore the decisions that our students were making.

Clearly they weren’t making any big conceptual decisions – the sort of product had already been decided – a quadcopter drone. The technical decisions in terms of how it would work had also been decided – four electric motors linked to flexbot circuit, controlled by the Bingo app. But there were lots of possibilities in the constructional decision-making.

Not 90°!

One student changed the alignment of the motors so that they were no longer at 90o to one another which made the drone faster but harder to control. And I suppose you could argue that this constructional change did in fact change the way the drone worked. A key feature of the pentagon is that the design decisions featured at each of the vertices aren’t independent of one another hence the lines between the vertices.

Interference fit

Another student responded to the modular challenge producing a design with four separate arms held tightly by an interference fit to the central node, taking advantage of the high degree of dimensional accuracy of additive manufacture. This required investigation and was in itself was a valuable learning experience.

Clearly it’s possible to set particular design challenges around constructional decisions e.g. making it more crash worthy.

Aesthetic decisions could also be made. Indeed changing the alignment of the motors could be seen as an aesthetic as well as a constructional decision. Devising light-weight covers that can be 3D printed or perhaps produced from nets that have been laser cut from thin sheet plastic might give the drone different ‘personalities’ and this may be seen as a marketing decision, changing the appearance to have appeal to different users. Marketing decisions can also be made with regard to how the drone gets to market – via a kit in a shop or on line, or via digital files for home or hub manufacture in collaboration with a circuit board/electrical motor supplier, related to this, deciding whether the product is open source or not is also a marketing decision. And just who the drone is for will make a big difference to what it might look like and additional features. And taking a step back how will the design decisions overall be affected by requiring drones to be part of a circular economy?

There is, of course, a “purer” engineering challenge, to design and make racing drones, where there are already a number of competitions with related rules and constraints.

The next area for us to consider is that of the consequences of drone technology, and its close cousin the Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) many of which have some more sinister applications; bombing, surveillance and smuggling as a counterbalance to the positive aspects; photography, delivery, surveying etc… each is a rich seam for discussion as well as the wider issues of automation, disruptive technologies generally or government regulation and control.

Far from this being a proprietary endeavour I want this to be a collaborative, open source one, so I invite you to join the Drones in Schools Google+ community to share your experiences, ideas and resources or add your comments to this post.

Ed Charlwood headshotEd Charlwood

Head of Design & Director of Digital Learning at Latymer Upper School, London

I am a passionate advocate of Design education who believes in the power of learning through analysis, designing and making. I am an Apple Distinguished Educator (class of 2013), a Google Certified Teacher (class of 2015) and the DATA Outstanding Newcomer to Design and Technology Award winner (2008), a particular focus of my work is to exemplify the notion that innovative and appropriate use of technology can redefine the traditional teacher-learner relationship and transform educational designing and making experiences. My vision is to inspire and empower students to make the things they imagine.

Re-Building D&T v2

Re-Building Design & Technology v2 is now available here. It has been informed by the responses we have had to the first version. We have taken many of these responses into account in rewriting the original eight sections and have introduced a completely new section Re-building – necessary but not sufficient.

Prior to publishing v2 of this document we sought the support of the D&T Association. To this end, we had a very productive meeting with Julie Nugent, the new CEO of the D&T Association and Andy Mitchell, the deputy CEO, at which they welcomed v2 of the Re-building paper and looked forward to working with stakeholders in responding to the recommendations. However we want to reiterate here what the paper says:

Our recommendations all carry implied costs, in some cases relatively modest and in others significant. These costs are beyond the current budget of the Association and it is really important that the whole D&T community works with the Association to help the realisation of these recommendations with both practical and financial support.

If you would like to discuss the provision of either practical or financial support with the D&T Association, you can contact them via their website; we suggest that you mention the Re-Building D&T document and it may be helpful to note that your message is for the attention of Julie Nugent, CEO.

In addition we look forward to receiving any comments you have on v2 and would welcome indications of how you might be using v2 of the document in your school, your initial teacher training or in the provision of CPD.

As ever, you can comment on this post or contact us directly.

Big Ideas for D&T

When we published the Re-Building Design & Technology Working Paper, one of the core things we suggested was that the D&T community could agree on some Big Ideas that should underpin learning within D&T.

We didn’t think these Big Ideas were particularly radical; they already mostly appear in one form or another in the current KS3 Orders for D&T as well as in the new D&T GCSEs.

We outlined some of the responses to the Re-Building paper in an earlier post, and, as we said there, some correspondents disagreed with the idea of Big Ideas and others felt they’d like to hear more detail on how these Big Ideas had been developed, so that they could understand our argument better.

We agree that this would be helpful and we hope that our second Working paper,  Big Ideas for Design & Technology, serves the purpose of explaining where the Bg Ideas we are advocating have come from.

As ever, we hope this paper will stimulate discussion and we look forward to your comments.

Maker Assembly Manchester | 12th November

Maker AssemblyMaker Assembly Manchester is just a couple of weeks away; If you’re interested in making contacts within the Manchester maker community – or simply finding out more about making in and around Manchester, then this is definitely for you.

In particular, if you are interested in how makers and schools can work together – please come along and join the conversation.

Further information

Maker Assembly – produced in association with V&A Digital Programmes and Lighthouse – is a critical gathering about maker cultures, which launched a year ago at the V&A.

makerassembly_1_b48283887c11a8faa67e341c71a1af0cSessions have taken place in Belfast, Sheffield and coming up next is Maker Assembly Manchester, which will take place Saturday, 12th November at MadLab, in conjunction with the Crafts Council’s Make:Shift innovation conference.

The event will explore international maker cultures and what the UK can learn from them; the relationship between making and manufacturing in the UK and the role of makerspaces within the sector; as well as making and humanitarian relief, discussing the role making can play within responses to humanitarian challenges. We have some great speakers joining us, including; Justyna SwatFelipe FonsecaAdrian McEwen, and Paul Sohi.


The Incomplete and Crowdsourced History of UK Maker Culture. 
Maker Assembly Sheffield 31 August 2016. Photo by Dan Sumption

Maker Assembly brings people together to have critical conversations about cultures of making – their meanings, politics, histories and futures. We encourage everyone to participate by combining short talks with contributions from the attendees. The event is peer-to-peer, informal and conversational.

What do we mean by “making”?

We’re talking about people who craft, design, manufacture, tinker with, engineer, fabricate, and repair physical things. Art, craft, electronics, textiles, products, robots. Hi-tech and low-tech, amateur and professional, young and old, with digital tools or by hand. Historical perspectives, what’s happening here and now, and how things might change in the future.

Tickets for Maker Assembly Manchester can be booked here:

Maker Assembly is supported by the Comino Foundation.

Humble Bundle deal on Make: titles

humble-bundle-10-16Humble Bundle is currently offering a wide range of books from the Make: catalogue. At the moment over $300 worth of books is on offer.

The offer expires in 7 days.

The deal is you pay what you want, over a very low limit, some of the money goes to charity, some to Make: and some to Humble Bundle; you can choose these ratios.

What you get is DRM-free e-versions of the books in pdf, epub (Apple iBook) and mobi (Amazon Kindle) versions.

There is a number of (IMHO…) highly recommendable books in the offer. What more can I say?

D&T for the Next Generation

coverThe book Design & Technology for the next generation was published in 2007 through funding from the Technology Enhancement Project with the intention that a copy should be given free of charge to every qualifying design & technology teacher for the following three years. For various reasons this intention was not met. The result was a very limited print run and despite the fact that the book was well received and found its way on many Initial Teacher Training and Masters Courses reading lists it became difficult to obtain and is now virtually unobtainable. To our mind this is a shame as the authors contributing to the book were, and still are, at the forefront of scholarship concerning the purpose, teaching and learning of design & technology education. Hence we are making available free to download PDFs of all the chapters in the book as we believe that they will provide useful reading for all design & technology teachers at a time when the subject is being challenged to modernise particularly in response the introduction of a new single subject GCSE being first taught in September 2017.
The chapters in the book are as follows:
At a time when all creative subjects are being marginalised in the structure of GCSE option choices, it is particularly important that design & technology teachers are able to argue convincingly for the place of their subject in the education for ALL young people up to the age of 16+. Not in terms of a narrow vocational argument centred on the economic necessity of skills required by industry, which will inevitably only apply to a minority of young people, but in terms of an induction to a culturally significant area of human activity that has shaped successive civilisations across history.

MIT has developed some Chooser Charts!

Christopher Polhem

Christopher Polhem

Chooser Charts were a key tool developed by the Nuffield D&T project that David led. Nuffield cannot claim that it was their idea. David Layton pointed out that Christopher Polhem had this idea in Sweden in the 17th Century. He developed a Mechanical Alphabet which was used in teaching at the Laboratorium mechanicum – Sweden´s first school of technology – and later also at the Institute of Technology, the predecessor of the Royal Institute of Technology of Sweden.

The aim of the Nuffield Chooser Charts was to provide young people studying design & technology with easy to use sources of information to help them make design decisions across all the focus areas. The Nuffield materials are now collected together on this website under Resources and contain a wide range of chooser charts for both KS3 and KS4 – in the latter case grouped by material area [electronics products, food technologygraphics, product design, and textiles], reflecting the way GCSE D&T was organised when they were produced. These materials can be freely used and adapted for classroom use but permission needs to be sought for any other purposes.

And we’ve just noticed that MIT’s D-Lab has made available, as high-resolution PDFs, three ‘Learn-IT Boards’ that are, in essence, Chooser Charts of a high graphic quality; one each on Fasteners, Adhesives and Material Selection.

Measuring 2 feet tall by 3 feet wide, Learn-It boards are designed to be hung on a workshop wall.  There, the Learn-Its act as self-serve references for workshop users making prototyping decisions.

Learn-It: Fasteners

Note that, though free, these materials are provided under the Attribution-Non-Commercial 3.0 Creative Commons License, which essentially means that if you use them you need to attribute MIT, include the same licence and not use them for commercial purposes.

We think it’s especially interesting that these are designed to be hung on the workshop wall to enable good design decisions to be made on the hoof!

The Learn-Its are more detailed than the Chooser Charts. They are self-guiding resources that provide an integrated introduction to basic mechanical design elements; they bridge the gap between superficial how-tos and super-detailed technical guides. They give people the right vocabulary to ask targeted questions in the workshop and online, while outlining detailed tips and explanations of physical phenomena driving how different mechanisms, tools, materials, and fasteners work. People are provided with enough information to critically select the right material, adhesive, or tool for their project.

ChooserIn comparison, the Chooser Charts are really designed to support design decision conversations between pupils and teachers, as opposed to providing all the information necessary to make and enact a design decision. So we see the pupils in schools having their own copies of chooser charts which they can annotate as they discuss possibilities with their teachers. We believe this would be very helpful in evidencing the design decisions the pupils make in the new GCSE contextual challenge. You might consider blowing up the Nuffield Chooser charts to A3  size and laminating them so that the teacher and pupil could annotate together using a white board marker. Of course the pupil would need to photograph the result for evidence of designerly thinking.