At first glance, it might look like any other summer camp—a bunch of kids scattered across the lawn and under tents, surrounded by projects and encouraged by the adults. But the projects aren’t just pinebox cars or t-shirts. Under one of the tents, Uplift Aeronautics engineer Ali Al-Atrash demonstrates how to assemble a stable wing structure for a fixed-wing Unmanned Aerial Vehicle, or as it’s more commonly known, a drone, while the girls work on quadcopter drones. Later, the campers will learn how to program the ‘brain’ of the drone, giving it coordinates and a flight path.
The girls are middle-schoolers from the Birmingham School system, learning to assemble and program drones in preparation for a class-wide competition. In this case, the technology serves a larger purpose: bringing more women into STEM programs at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, the camp’s host college. Uplift Aeronautics’ goal is to help develop a sense of ownership and ambition for the girls, and to ignite a love of science and engineering.
STEM—the acronym for the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics—is one of the fastest-growing business and economic segments of the modern age, and one notorious for its lack of female professionals. Many of the early pioneers of these fields were women on the cutting edge of science, yet in recent years, the percentage of women in the field has shrunk to barely twenty-five percent. Camps like the UAB STEM camp aim to help increase those percentages by encouraging girls to start considering STEM fields a viable choice for their future.
Better yet, it works. The girls learn to diagnose and fix problems with the technology, an empowerment that they may not have experienced in their classrooms. According to Al-Atrash, many of the girls expressed interest in the University’s School of Engineering. Others found ways to improve on the existing design.
Drones being used to help develop diversity and equality in the tech sector? It’s exactly the sort of thing Uplift Aeronautics is hoping to encourage. Drones are almost exclusively equated with war, a perception that has had little to challenge it, although they are beginning to expand into dozens of civilian markets. From photography to wildlife conservation, drones have the potential to aid humanity’s most difficult ambitions, often at much lower expense than traditional methods.
They’re working to make their mark in humanitarian and crisis response fields, too, through groups like the Humanitarian UAV Network and Uplift Aeronautics’ own Syria Airlift Project, offering unprecedented access to areas ravaged by natural disaster or blocked by human conflict.
Drones are also just cool, and offer kids a fun way to get involved in a field that they may never have considered before. For girls, who are seldom encouraged by parents or teachers to pursue this sort of career, they’re also tangible proof of ability and possibility.