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Anna Puleo (center) and her family got a tour of the Robotics Discovery Lab led by College of Earth, Ocean and Environment doctoral student Stephanie Dohner (left).
Anna Puleo (center) and her family got a tour of the Robotics Discovery Lab led by College of Earth, Ocean and Environment doctoral student Stephanie Dohner (left).

Hummingbird drones

Photo by Adam Thomas

2017 Coast Day Fifth Grade Essay Contest winner spends day at Robotics Discovery Lab

When Anna Puleo won first place in the 2017 Coast Day Fifth Grade Essay Contest for an essay focused on using drones to study the migratory patterns of hummingbirds, she never thought that one year later, she’d find herself using an actual drone.

But that’s exactly what happened on Sunday, Aug. 26 at the University of Delaware’s Hugh R. Sharp Campus in Lewes, when Anna got to tour the Robotic Discovery Lab, build her own Lego drone and pilot an actual drone.

“I’ve actually never even flown my brother’s small drones so it was really fun to fly the drone and it was really fun to learn something new,” said Anna.

In her essay, Anna stressed the importance of hummingbirds as pollinators, giving flowers the ability to reproduce. She also marveled that hummingbirds fly over water and land non-stop for 24 hours, something that a drone could help capture with video.

According to the essay, the drone would hypothetically allow researchers to see how hummingbirds need help on their journey as well as see hummingbird flight patterns in order to lure them in to help give Delaware more pollination.

“The more pollinators we have, the more food we have, the more food we can give to people in need,” said Anna in her essay, which she wrote while a fifth grader in Nancy Ventresca’s class at Thurgood Marshall Elementary School in Newark.

To honor this idea, Stephanie Dohner and Kaitlyn McPherran, both doctoral level students in the College of Earth, Ocean and Environment, created three signs for the drone to fly after: two with pictures of hummingbirds and one with a picture of a flower to signify a plant in need of pollination.

Dohner said that while drones are fun, they are also important tools that help researchers collect myriad data points they might otherwise have not been able to collect so easily.

“They’re designed for folks to fly, have fun, make cute videos and things like that, but there’s serious data in there,” Dohner said. “A drone can fly over the beach for three hours, get me millions of data points versus a traditional method where I could get maybe one to two hundred data points.”

Anna’s two brothers, Anthony and Carlos, and their mother, Liles, got in on the fun, running around a campus field while Anna steered the drone in their directions.

The two brothers also got a chance to fly the drone, at which point Anna took over holding one of the hummingbird signs and running around the field.

In addition to getting to fly the drone, the Puleos also got a tour of the Robotics Discovery Lab from Dohner and the three siblings got to design, and try to fly, drones of their own built out of Legos.

“I’ve always been someone who grew up playing with Legos but it was such a different experience because I always thought of Legos as building materials, not so much science [materials] so it was a lot different and it was really fun,” said Anna.

Dohner said that getting students involved in hands-on learning activities like these are important as it gets them to think practically as well as creatively, stressing a Science, Technology, Reading, Engineering, Art and Math (STREAM) mentality.

“Technology plays into art and into engineering and mathematics. You can’t do one without the other and it seems to be a generational swing in education where it used to be, you should be good at one thing, and now we’re thinking that we all need to be users and creators in all areas,” said Dohner.

Dohner also stressed that the hands-on experience the Puleo children were able to gain is critical for anyone looking to get into a field such as oceanography, marine science or marine technology.

Visitors to this year’s Coast Day, on Oct. 7, can get a sense of the possibilities themselves on a smaller scale. Among other exhibits, the Robotic Discovery Lab will be open during the event and will have several kid-friendly activities. The goal, for Coast Day and for Anna’s private tour, is to let students know the opportunities that are out there for anyone with the interest, the work ethic, and the persistence to give science a try.

“If you can code something, if you’re comfortable with electronics, if you’re just willing to try and fail and then try again, ocean and marine science is for you,” Dohner said. “Places like UD, we try to get as many kids as we can through elementary school visits, outreach events, and internships. Just a day with us could really help someone.”

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