July 2018 MIT Beaver Works Summer Institute group photo

Written by John M. Doyle for the January/February 2019 issue of Vertiflite magazine

While operators of vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) explore new roles for their aircraft, educators and engineers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are using small VTOL drones to get high school students excited about science, technology, math and, especially, engineering.

This past July, for the third summer in a row, scores of soon to-be high school seniors traveled to MIT’s Cambridge, Massachusetts, campus — just across the Charles River from Boston — to participate in one of eight demanding, project based engineering courses, including two where students built and flew robotic quadcopters to study autonomous vertical flight and radar imaging. 

It’s all part of part of the Beaver Works Summer Institute, a rigorous,world-class science, technology, engineering and mathematics
Assembling UAVs from a modified DJI F550 kit(STEM) program for talented rising high school seniors, developed
by MIT’s Beaver Works Center, a research and innovation incubator
created by the MIT School of Engineering and Lincoln Laboratory,
a federal research lab based at MIT. In addition to the Center’s
collaboration between MIT and Lincoln Lab, “the truly exciting part
is the opportunity to shape the next generation of engineers and
leaders in a way that will stay with them forever — they are the
future,” said Dr. Robert Shin, Beaver Works’ director and creator of the Beaver Works Summer Institute (BWSI).

To engage high schoolers in several STEM areas, the institute offers
hands-on courses like ones offered to MIT engineering students at
Beaver Works, where they can get involved in a range of research
and educational pursuits. They include two-semester, coursebased
capstone projects; joint and individual research initiatives;
and research internships. As part of a recent capstone project, a
team of MIT engineering students and faculty designed a gasoline powered,
long-duration, fixed-wing UAV that can stay aloft for five
days at altitudes of 15,000 ft (4.6 km).

MIT Beaverworks UAS Synthetic Aperture Radar course

A big goal for BWSI is to attract more female students. “We tried
really, really hard this year, but it’s about the same as last year
[2017],” said Shin. While there were more female applicants in
2018, the program doubled in size, so the percentage of girls in
the Summer Institute remained between 25% and 30%, he said,
adding “Our goal is to make it 50/50.” The program seeks a 1-to-1
ratio from participating high schools. “If they submit one male,
we ask them also to submit one female,”
said BWSI Manager Lisa Kelley.

Shin said the Beaver Works wants to present STEM to a wider
student population; reach out to rural and inner-city schools;
spread the word to schools across the country and enlist other
colleges and universities in MIT’s campaign
to encourage STEM studies.

Besides strengthening the US’s economy, technology innovation
and national security, companies like BAE and Raytheon say it’s
in their own best interest to support STEM education in general
and the Beaver Works program in particular. “Through robotics,
through the BWSI, we connect with the students early, and then
when they’re applying for internships next summer, they’re
interested in working with BAE because now they know about
us. And they get to apply their interests in software and systems engineering to real challenges that we have for them
here,” BAE’s Hiltz said.