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Expert Interview Series: Dr. Pavel Solin of NCLab Inc. On Teaching Kids To Code And Pilot Drones

Computer science

Dr. Pavel Solin is the founder and CEO of NCLab Inc. and also full professor of computational and applied math at the University of Nevada, Reno, USA.

NCLab specializes in teaching coding to school-age children. How did you get started teaching coding to school kids, initially? What are some of the advantages of getting them started so young?

NCLab actually is much more than just a course provider. First and foremost it is an open public cloud computing platform that provides free access to a large number of creative apps based on widely adopted and massively used open source software. Once you create a free user account in NCLab, you can write and run programs in several programming languages, save them in your user account and even publish on the web and share with others. You can also build 3D models; design and study molecules; use computer algebra systems; compute using GNU Octave and R, and even perform engineering analysis of stresses, strains, temperature and electromagnetic fields.

Around 2010, we realized that these tools can be useful not only to research-level scientists and college students, but also to K-12 schools. During our visits to remote rural schools we realized that these schools do not have money to purchase expensive commercial software such as a CAD system and, even if they did, there are not enough skilled instructors to teach the subject. The latter applies to coding and to other STEM areas, as well.

We started developing our first self-paced and self-graded courses to allow students to learn on their own and also to allow teachers to be able to provide this instruction to the kids without being experts on the subject matter. Our courses quickly became popular although the first versions were far from perfect. Kids loved the challenge and were fascinated by the contents. They learned not only to code but also to use Constructive Solid Geometry (CSG) to build 3D models and print them on a 3D printer. We begin exposing kids to these areas in 6th grade. This is a great time because we can capture their interest and show them that STEM and CTE are great before they decide to do something else because they do not really like math.

You are passionate about providing STEM education to everyone who wants to learn, especially the under-privileged. Again, what inspired you to get involved? Why is it so important to teach STEM to under-privileged children?

While training teachers at remote rural schools, I saw numerous really talented students. It hurt me to realize that they do not have an equal shot at a great education and a great career as kids from more affluent families who live in more developed urban areas. NCLab provides equitable access and strives to remove some of these differences. We still have a long way to go, but I am proud to say that thanks to NCLab, numerous kids are now studying science and engineering in college who otherwise would not even consider it. There is lots of talent and potential in underprivileged children, and it should be in the interest of all of us to give them a chance.

NCLab recently took place in part of Nevada STEM Underwater and Aerial Vehicle Computer Science Institute, which taught students enough coding to get started operating unmanned aerial vehicles. How did that go? How did the kids take to it?

The kids loved it, of course! Building drones that can fly or dive under water is something that excites them. As beginning programmers, they would not be able to write software to operate the drones. But they understand that there is software in the drones and that they must start somewhere to be eventually able to write such software. So while we were teaching them the basics, the drones served as an exceptional motivation.

Similarly, what are some things that need to be coded when dealing with drones? How hard is it to get started, for an absolute beginner?

I am a computational scientist, therefore I happen to know quite precisely what software is needed to make drones fly The software actually is solving systems of ordinary differential equations, in real time, using numerical methods. As you can see, this does not sound like something a middle schooler can do – and indeed it isn’t. You need to be really good at computer programming, college math and numerical methods in order to even attempt this. But some drone manufacturers provide a high-level interface, usually a graphical one, where the user can “program” very basic actions of the drone, such as to follow a predefined path.

Drones have been used to gather data since the 1970s, but are just starting to take off in the civilian sector. What are some reasons why drones have escalated so much in the past few years? Will this trend continue, do you think, or is it just a fad that will die down?

The first microwave oven was created in 1946, it weighted 750 pounds, was water-cooled and cost about as much as a house, at that time. Nobody thought that one day a microwave oven would be in in every kitchen. If you look back, the same thing happened with computers and other things. Now it’s happening with drones. In fact, it is a natural evolution. A few decades ago, computers were nowhere close to being able to handle the complex algorithms of today’s drones. There was a significant evolution in materials which are now lighter and more durable than ever, and in batteries. As a matter of fact, batteries are the current bottleneck and I mean not only the evolution of drones, but the evolution of electrical cars and many other electrical devices, as well.

What are a few areas where you’ve seen drones used in an innovative fashion? What are some recent developments that you’re most excited about?

We can expect to have drones in every household eventually, as we have microwave ovens and computers. Their uses will be many, ranging from surveillance and security to cleaning. Drones are already used to keep track of livestock on large ranches, in agriculture, and we will be seeing more of them everywhere, with each passing year. Nowadays, it is fairly easy to hear a drone. But as they become smaller and less noisy, our lives and especially our privacy will be redefined.

What are a few things that are preventing drones from becoming even more widespread? Are those factors going to change in the near future, do you think?

It’s only the cost. The best, smallest, most quiet drones are still only available for military purposes, and their cost is prohibitive. As their cost will gradually decrease, we will see more of them in our daily lives.

Kids learn particularly well with hands-on learning. How can drones make learning STEM and coding more concrete and relateable for children? What difference could that make, in the long run?

We should not give drones a mystic ability to make kids learn. Kids can be excited about many things, and all that can be used to motivate them to learn. The irreplaceable component of the learning process is the teacher, a human authority that the kids look up to. A great teacher can make kids excited about anything. We should keep in mind that the kids are not really excited about microwave ovens or computers anymore. These are normal things today and so will be drones in a few years or decades.

The website LiveScience posted an article about a drone collecting blood samples from a remote village in Africa. What are some other ways that drones are being used for humanitarian efforts? How can that be used as a way to get kids motivated towards coding and operating UAVs?

Drones are an excellent way to reach places that would be hard to reach otherwise. So they will play a huge role in emergency response operations in the future, even more than today. Today, there are first attempts to have drones build bridges. Later we may see drones build tall buildings. They will be much smaller than the gigantic hardware that we need today.

Can you offer a few final pointers on how to make coding, flying drones, or other technical activities fun and interesting for kids? How can this pave the way for a lifelong love of learning?

One thing that we see clearly is that recreational coding using interactive visual tools is becoming increasingly popular among adult and lifelong learners. People realize that coding is not so much about typing code, as it is about thinking and planning and having a machine execute a strategy that is prepared in advance. There is hardly anything more awesome than write a program for a machine and then actually watch the machine do it.

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