One evening, I asked the students involved in the Virginia Drones Project to answer a few questions about what they were doing. Since there are over thirty students in the class, they wrote far more than you probably want to read, so here’s an edited version in their own words:
The Virginia Drones Project is an interdisciplinary course in which we learn how to use UAVs to solve various global problems. In one sense, it is like a traditional class as we meet on a weekly basis and are given assignments due each class. Yet, in every other sense, this is not a traditional course due to the interdisciplinary structure. Each student is forced to work outside of their own comfort zones and challenge themselves. We collaborate and learn from each team member’s strengths. We must also learn to effectively present and create stories about their project, beyond simply working on the solution itself.
What’s not evident from this otherwise accurate description is where these students were working as they wrote. Although they were all logged into the nowhere space of a Google Doc to answer this prompt, they were actually scattered across Virginia, in classrooms and maker spaces in James Madison, George Mason, and Old Dominion universities. What’s more, some of the key instructors in the project—successful inventors and entrepreneurs in the UAV industry—were logged in from NovaLabs, a non-profit maker space in Reston, VA. (Find out more about the course instructors here.)
So, when the students write that this is not a course in the traditional sense, they aren’t joking. The Virginia Drones Project, like The JMU Drones Project that preceded it, is perhaps best described as an experimental learning network sponsored by 4-VA that gathers students and faculty from across the disciplines in higher education as well as experts, mentors, and clients from the public and private sectors. Our job is to chase after big ideas and learn from that experience. Whether we are in the same physical space or communicating via telepresence robots, everyone who participates in this network dreams big and works hard. The projects we produce during our 15 weeks working together are never predictable, and they don’t always work. But they are never boring, and they often contain the seeds of ideas worth pursuing after the class is over.
The ingredients that produce the kind of alchemy we witness every week in the JMU X-Lab aren’t all that difficult to pin down. Personally, I think it’s what happens when you bring together folks with different ways of thinking and training, give them a space to work in, and tell them that the only barriers to what they can achieve are the semester’s clock and a modest budget. Our students mostly agree, though they might emphasize different things. Some favor the interdisciplinary, experiential character of the course; others believe the course has better prepared them for the world of work. A few might even tell you that it has changed what they want to do with their lives.
It’s very reaffirming to hear these comments, and research we conducted with students in The JMU Drones Project last year paints much the same picture. This kind of feedback also confirms research from elsewhere, which argues that project-driven, interdisciplinary, and collaborative learning works because it asks students to move away from relying solely on what they know individually and toward what they might produce collectively. It encourages them to think big, fail creatively, and try again. Skills that are good for work—and vital for life.
This semester, the three universities involved in the Virginia Drones Project worked on an exciting array of projects, and they documented their process along the way. The navigation bar at the top of every page of this site will bring you to each team’s home page. From there, you can browse articles that describe those projects and appreciate how each of the teams were engaged in a constant process of thinking, researching, tinkering, relating, intuiting, theorizing, sketching, making, presenting, failing, repeating … and always learning.
~ By Seán McCarthy, on behalf of The Virginia Drones Project team