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Students work with U.S. Air Force to solve real-world STEM problems

Students working on search and rescue technology, robotics, and GPS satellites
(Photo: U.S. Air Force) Members of the U.S. Air Force and Army examine a map to determine the placement of disaster-response facilities in Illinois.
(Photo: U.S. Air Force) Members of the U.S. Air Force and Army examine a map to determine the placement of disaster-response facilities in Illinois.

Developing small robotic helicopters that can navigate rooms on their own is a task usually left to engineering experts. But now, students seeking hands-on STEM experience can work with U.S. Air Force experts on this and other real military projects, including rescue technology and GPS satellites.

The Air Force Collaboratory is an interactive online platform created by the Air Force and GOOD magazine, with goals of inspiring the next generation of STEM professionals. “Currently, the United States is 25th in global science and math standings,” says Scott Brewer, spokesperson for GOOD. “The best way to return to the top of the list and inspire kids to pursue these careers is to show them all of the amazing opportunities STEM can offer.”

The program began in August and runs through November, and includes three projects that last several weeks each. Teachers are integrating the projects into their lesson plans, Brewer says, though the program does not monitor the number of schools participating. Students can sign up for free with an email address or through Facebook.

When the Air Force responds to a natural disaster, it relies on technology to find survivors, Brewer says. The first collaboratory project, Search and Rescue 2.0, ran from August to the end of September.

Students had to find technology that could be modified for use in real-life rescue missions, and develop new methods to better locate survivors in a collapsed building. The Air Force might normally use trained dogs or thermal imaging cameras that detect heat to find people. One student proposed using a robot with sonar capabilities to locate survivors by their heart beats.

Students posted their ideas, research, and links to videos and images on a collaborative page, and other students and Air Force experts responded with advice. The top ideas were selected for further development, and eventually the Air Force will prototype these student creations.

The second project is called Mind of a Quadrotor. Students use programming, engineering, physics, and robotics skills to develop a small, unmanned, helicopter-like vehicle that can fly around a room with minimal human control. It runs through Oct. 31.

The final project, Launch of GPS IIF, will teach students the engineering and science behind GPS technology and allow them to determine the best place in space to launch the Air Force’s newest GPS satellite. “This is not a simulation. This is a $200 million dollar satellite,” Brewer says. “These are real-life challenges and they are epic.”

Custom lesson plans break down each project for class participation, and are available for free through Discovery Education. Each project is divided into several chapters, so teachers can focus on areas relevant to their lessons. Students can earn virtual badges for exceptional thinking, collaboration with others, and high levels of participation.

Each project has been designed to accommodate students at any level, Brewer says. “The goal is for students of various backgrounds to work together [online] to solve these real-life challenges,” he says.