The Modern Blanket Toss

Upward Bound students work on a UAV with instructor Charlie Parr.

Alaska EPSCoR is helping students in five Alaska high schools to reach new heights.

Together with Alaska Upward Bound, EPSCoR is administering “The Modern Blanket Toss,” a program through which high school students perform experiments using unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and Geographic Information Systems (GIS) techniques. The goal of the project is to increase the students’ interest in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields as they undertake projects that are useful to their communities.

“We named this project after the Native tradition of the blanket toss, which enabled people to expand their horizons beyond their immediate surroundings,” said John Monahan, Director of UAF Upward Bound and head of the program. “We want this project to do the same thing – literally, by giving students a bird’s-eye view of their communities, and figuratively, by exciting them about college and about STEM careers.”

The program, which is being funded by a $750,000, three-year NSF award, will engage a total of approximately 75 low-income, prospective first-generation college students from high schools in the communities of Shishmaref, Bethel, Chefornak, Nikiski and Seward. Students attend Upward Bound’s residential summer classes on the UAF campus, during which they are trained in UAV and GIS use, as well as in science communication and leadership, in addition to the program’s general curriculum. Instruction includes classroom modules and hands-on experiences that take advantage of campus UAV expertise, such as field trips to UAF’s Poker Flat Research Range.

All five schools have been provided with quad-rotor and hexcopter UAV’s, as well as GoPro cameras, GPS tracking devices, and smaller and simpler UAV's use for flight training. During the academic year, students – under the instruction of both local and remote Upward Bound personnel – take part in learning activities centered around the UAV’s, including guest speakers, “virtual field trips,” and other instruction delivered via videoconference. These activities are structured into a "UAV Challenge Series," a set of UAV building and operation activities. As students progress through the series, they develop more advanced skills in UAV building and operation, which they in turn use to accomplish higher-level challenges. As they gain experience with the UAV’s, students take part in hands-on simulations of sophisticated operations, such as search-and-rescues or charting sea ice.

These activities will culminate in a large-scale mapping project, which will be chosen and designed based on students' and community members’ input. Projects under development will examine flood patterns in Seward, mathane release near Chefornak, dangerous ice conditions around Bethel, and coastal erosion at Shishmaref. Students will present their project results at community meetings and other events, including a UAF workshop in summer 2016. With professional supervision, students will also create a series of videos describing stages of the project.

The first phase of the project began in spring 2014 and involved 12 students at Shishmaref High School. The first cohort of students in the program, consisting of 16 students from four of the communities, began their Upward Bound summer studies in June 2014. In summer 2015 18 more students took part in the program, with two-thirds focused on UAV's and the other third concentrating on GIS mapping.

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