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High Schoolers Build Drones To Detect Gas Leaks, Measure Air Quality

For the last two months, more than 20 students at Winchester Thurston School in Shadyside have been building drones.

Part of a cross-curricular project led by science department chair Graig Marx and computer science department chair David Nassar, students were divided into seven teams and tasked with building a “quadcopter” with the ability to measure, report and analyze natural gas levels.

According to Marx, each drone is fitted with a gas sensor and a standard SD card, the type you’d see in your cell phone. After each flight, the data is analyzed, processed and sent to a mobile app where the students can see the data they’ve just collected.

Marx said he wanted to put together a project that was relevant to real world applications.

“You can’t turn on a news channel [or] open up a newspaper without hearing something associated with drones or associated with natural gas,” he said.

When Marx presented the project, he said the students were a little uneasy at first. Lucas Rosenblatt, a junior at Winchester Thurston, said some students weren’t exactly optimistic.

“I think a lot of students didn’t think they could accomplish as far as we did in this process,” he said. “We have a working prototype, which we’ve tested, and many of the groups who participated do in fact have quadcopters that fly with sensors on them and they do record data, which is a success.”

Students said this technology could be used by gas and utilities companies, as well as in communities to measure air quality.

As part of the project, students were exposed to fields such as 3D printing, computer programing and simulations, environmental science, and computer-aided design.

For the students, Marx said finishing the project became more important than their scores.

“They didn’t care what the grade was,” he said. “They didn’t care if theirs was better than somebody else’s. They just wanted to see it work and that was exciting for us to see.”

Students would often stay after school to redesign their drones or take an extra test flight if the first one didn’t go as planned.

Marx said working through projects like these help students learn in ways that taking tests just can’t do.

“In one sense, we’re preparing them to go sit in a classroom and take notes and study for tests and do well so that they can move on,” he said, “but we’re also attempting to make them into scientists, into computer programmers, and rarely is there an exam.”

Rosenblatt said doing projects like this gives students a real world experience in the fields of science and technology.

“It’s much different to be in a classroom talking about the aerodynamics of flying a quadcopter or gas and it’s harmful effect on the environment, then to actually go out into the field with a remote control and fly a quadcopter around a gas tank and see whether or not you can read values,” he said.

The drones were on display Thursday evening as part of the Winchester Thurston STEM Symposium.

The project was included a partnership with Carnegie Mellon University’s Community Robotics, Education, and Technology Empowerment Lab.

The Erie, PA native has been a fellow in the WESA news department since May 2013. Having earned a bachelor's degree in print journalism from Duquesne University, he is now pursuing an M.A. in multi-media management. Michael describes his career aspiration as "I want to do it all in journalism."
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