DURHAM, N.C.—Keni Rienks (DEL-MEM’19), a science teacher by day, combined her passion for education and STEM to develop a lesson plan on drone use in K-12 education for her Master’s Project (MP). 

An MP combines the academic rigor of a thesis with the practical experience of an internship. Working singly or in groups, students apply skills and knowledge they’ve acquired in the classroom to tackle real-world environmental challenges through a well-formulated and defensible analysis. It is a culminating experience for many Duke Environmental Leadership Master of Environmental Management (DEL-MEM) students at the Nicholas School of the Environment. 

Duke Environment recently corresponded with Rienks to discuss the goals and key findings of her MP, and how her lesson plan could be implemented to get young people interested in STEM.

What is the goal(s) of your MP?

“The main goal of my MP was to develop an introductory lesson plan on drone safety, use, flight and applications that aligned with Next Generation Science Standards and North Carolina Department of Instruction standards. This lesson plan caters to students ages 8-18, and can be utilized across various curricula, not just science or STEM-related classes. 

“Moving forward, I intend to continue evaluating the plan, and then make improvements targeting specific real-world skill sets. I also plan to calibrate the program in a way that will cater to English-language learners, girls and other minority students. Finally, I hope to provide training and outreach to teachers in my community on how to use drones in the classroom. 

“It is important to credit the inspiration for my MP to an established drone program in Australia called SheMaps. My advisor, Dave Johnston, connected me with their founder, Karen Joyce. I mirrored my lesson plan from the SheMaps ‘Drone Day Teaser’ that Joyce and her team shared with us last spring at a clinic in Beaufort.”

What challenges did you encounter with your work?

“The greatest challenge I encountered was keeping up with the numbers. When my research process began more than a year ago, there were very few applicable drone-related lesson plans available. The lesson plans that did exist were primarily focused on outdoor, FAA certification flights. However, there has recently been a flood of published, free resources that teachers have started sharing with one another.

“This is exciting but it generates concerns. Yes, drones are a fun activity to engage students but there are also safety and ethical aspects that can’t be overlooked. Any teacher choosing to use drones in the classroom needs to be conscientious of these aspects and should integrate them into the lesson as well.”

What are the key findings of your MP?

“My background research revealed the staggering economic effect that drones and drone-related careers will have on our workforce and economy. A 2013 publication, “The Economic Impact of Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration in the United States,”1 reports that integration of drones and drone-related careers will generate more than $82 billion and 104,000 jobs by 2025.

“These statistics provide a solid justification for the integration of drones into primary and secondary classrooms.

“Overall, I found that every student who flew the drone experienced joy and self-confidence. There was no scientific analysis utilized in that – I simply watched each person that participated in the drone program smile during the entire lesson. Plus, the number one comment I heard during or after was, ‘[gasp of surprise] I had no idea I could do that!!’”  


Keni Rienks presenting master's project
Rienks presents her research at the MP Symposium

What types of transferrable skills does learning to fly a drone teach a student?

“One of the greatest aspects of this lesson is that it is not just about flying a drone. Of course, drone flight can aid in hand-eye coordination, but the drone itself is a tool for a wide scope of transferrable skills. 

“To begin, students can be given the challenge of designing a drone to perform a specific real-world task. This could be anything from a small, maneuverable drone to perform search and rescue after a natural disaster, to a large, stable, long-range drone to deliver food and water supplies to disaster survivors. This requires critical thinking and processing. 

“Next, students can be given the parts of a drone to assemble. This provides an opportunity for students to read and process intricate instructions, while holding tangible parts.

“Students should then consider the safety and ethical aspects of flying their drones. Students can perform research, engage in thought-provoking discussions and practice persuasive or narrative writing.

“After learning to fly a drone, students can then program them to fly autonomously. Writing, evaluating and executing programming is an essential STEM-related skill for many career paths.”

What do you think are some of the major hurdles in getting today’s youth interested in STEM-related courses and careers?

“A hurdle I see are drones and other hands-on stem lessons competing for classroom time with standardized tests and preparation. Higher education still requires them, and standardized test scores are still how the U.S. education system measures success in schools, meaning that much of our classroom time is still catering to testing rather than hands-on learning.

“There also remains a stigma to STEM, particularly for females. The stereotype of a STEM-career involves this idea of a room filled with computers, calculators, machines and males. But there are many amazing STEM careers, and there are many amazing women helping to close the gender gap, particularly with drones. This includes SheMaps, as well as the U.S.-based organization Women and Drones. 
“Despite the hurdles, I believe that there is some positive momentum occurring with a lot of teachers in a lot of classrooms working to make STEM education more accessible.”


1Jenkins, D., & Vasigh, B. (2013). The Economic Impact of Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration in the United States. Arlington: Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International.