Problem Solving in a Pandemic

four young adults try to shield themselves with a plastic water container, storage box, mask, and paper bag

A pandemic is the kind of time when you want information to be true and credible. And yet, we all have someone in our lives who moonlights as an epidemiologist on occasion. The unlucky among us might know 5G conspiracy theorists and mask-shunners. Or have Trump as President. 

If you didn’t instantly exit this page, well done. This means you have excellent critical thinking skills. We’ve had to collectively employ these, as well as creative thinking skills, a lot this year. From deciding how cautious to be, to finding workaround after workaround for the changing situation. 

You developed those critical and creative thinking skills when you were kids, of course. We often talk about real world applications as the best way to teach kids these soft skills. Textbook problems add an abstract element that is difficult for students to attach to. 

Right now, we have the mother of all real world applications. All of your students are affected by COVID-19 and are dealing with it in their own way. Just like us, they will also have found or heard different information — some true, some maybe not so true.

How many of your students are critically examining the information they hear or see and asking the right questions about it? 

Suddenly, the creative and critical thinking skills we need to teach kids feels very real and very important. We need to set our students up to make good decisions. 

Making good decisions in a pandemic

In setting up a COVID-19-themed lesson to teach kids problem-solving, we turned to no other than WeRobotics.

WeRobotics and their Flying Labs network use drones to help solve local problems — by investing in local expertise to create local solutions. 

Basically, in a crisis, instead of going to places that need assistance, trying to fix their problems and then leaving, they invest in the fixers who are part of the local community. Like you and like us, they are educators and enablers. We’re in good company.

As a result of how much drones are being used in the pandemic, WeRobotics have been updating information from global experts about the usage considerations. They have written an excellent blog from an industry perspective here.

As we mentioned earlier, there has been so much information this year about COVID-19. What we should and shouldn’t be doing, what works, what doesn’t.

When you layer in new ways that we are using technology, like drones, there’s a real opportunity to employ those creative and critical thinking skills to look at these usages from lots of interesting angles:

This is about asking kids to weigh up the pros and cons, consider improvements that should be made, consider the parameters within which technology should be used, and answer ethical questions as well as practical ones.

Essentially, get kids involved in using critical and creative thinking to make good decisions while also understanding what drones are capable of. 

Lesson Considerations

Below, is the information about drone usage during the pandemic. It checks out as credible because it’s from global experts and it has been reviewed and included by a second party, WeRobotics. 

First, we need to tell students what the usage is, making sure to remove as much bias as possible about whether or not we think the usage is a good one — we want to help students go through the process of reaching a conclusion themselves. 

Next, we’re asking students the question: What are the considerations or factors? This is the pros and cons list. It outlines context, knock-on effects, and looks at evidence.

The final question is: Should we use it in a pandemic? This is a question that often needs follow-up questions and it also doesn’t need a yes or no answer. Students who can reach a balanced analysis, taking the good parts of a usage and looking at alleviating or improving some of the problematic parts are showing creative and critical future thinking skills. 

The lesson content

Here, you’ll find seven drone usages in no particular order of importance. If we’d done that, we would absolutely have put mapping, our favourite, first! 

1. Outdoor Drone Spraying

drone spraying a disinfectant solution

What is it?

A drone flies with a pump, tank, and nozzles to spray a liquid in a certain area. Normally, this is used for agricultural purposes — spraying a crop with a fungicide to help it grow, for instance. During the pandemic this was used to spray disinfectant to sanitize areas. 

What are the considerations/factors?

  • There is little to no evidence that outdoor spraying of disinfectants or other substances has any impact on reducing the transmission of coronavirus.
  • This kind of fumigation could create public health problems and add to environmental pollution.
  • Outdoor spraying may help reassure local communities that the government is in control and responding.
  • This could create a false sense of safety and dis-incentivize physical distancing.

Should we use it in a pandemic?

2. Temperature scanning

drones used in scanning human body temperatures

What is it? 

Drones fly in the air, a few metres away from a person, and use their heat detection technology to see if that person has a higher temperature than normal. 

What are the considerations/factors?

  • Current technology is not accurate at testing for this and sometimes a small difference of only 1 or 2 degrees is the difference between being healthy and someone having a fever. 
  • Detecting a medical change in someone is about more than just their body heat — it involves looking for things such as respiratory rates, heart rate, blood pressure, skin tone colour changes. 
  • People move all the time, which makes it more difficult for heat sensors to get an accurate reading. 
  • Not everyone develops a fever immediately with coronavirus so it cannot be used as a single solution to understand if someone has the virus.

Should we use it in a pandemic?

  • Artificial intelligence solutions are being worked on that look at the whole human body more intricately, including other telltale signs of coronavirus, such as coughing and sneezing.

3. Audio broadcasting

a large drone that can be used for audio broadcasting

What is it? 

Loudspeakers are attached to drones and public safety announcements are made from the sky to encourage physical distancing and staying home.

What are the considerations/factors?

  • Sometimes has the opposite effect of encouraging physical distancing because people crowd around the drone to listen to the message. (Many people have not had a drone speak to them before so often they are curious).
  • Sometimes the speakers are not loud enough to be heard over the sound the drone engine makes. 
  • They work well when directed at a single person (first responders, like firefighters, will use them in this way to issue directions to a person they are rescuing.)
  • It depends what the message is — if the message is worded badly or is boring, people will ignore it. 

Should we use it in a pandemic?

  • Technology advancement of speakers needs to improve.
  • Crowds vs a single person – how realistic is this in a pandemic?

4. Cargo delivery

a man setting up his delivery drone

What is it? 

Using cargo drones to deliver essential medicines and to collect patient samples for COVID-19 testing quickly and while maintaining a safe social distance. 

What are the considerations/factors?

  • Helpful in areas where land and other air transportation routes have been shut down. 
  • Setting up a cargo drone delivery of medicine is very time consuming. 
  • Civil Aviation  Authorities (CAAs) that allow drones to take flights along certain routes are notoriously slow and it’s unclear whether they are likely to provide fast track options for flight permissions, even during a pandemic.
  • The local availability of reliable and affordable cargo drones, let alone trained cargo drone pilots, is limited in many countries

Should we use it in a pandemic?

5. Surveillance

a policeman using a drone for surveillance

What is it? 

During the pandemic, drones have been used to monitor the movement of people, for instance, breaking isolation rules.

What are the considerations/factors?

  • Raises a lot of ethical questions
    • How are people meant to know what is a police drone and what is a regular drone?
    • Concerns around a person’s right to privacy and to not be identified and recorded. 
    • Drones need to be deployed fairly across an area, not just in some areas but not others. 
  • We need more information on local context, actual needs, priorities, alternatives, politics, culture, history, etc., to understand if surveilling with drones is a valuable tool and where it is needed.

Should we use it in a pandemic?

6. Connectivity

a drone used as a flying cellphone tower for improved connectivity in hard-to-reach areas

What is it? 

Drones are being used as “flying cell phone towers” creating a signal for cellphone and internet reception. They are tethered to the ground so they supply this signal in their surrounding radius. 

What are the considerations/factors?

  • Some people need to go to schools, libraries, or work to access the internet, or don’t have decent coverage at home. This would allow them to use the internet and their cellphones if they are in isolation at home.
  • These drones could also be used by authorities to contact specific local communities directly. 
  • Refugee camps do not generally have good technology infrastructure. This would allow refugees to be able to communicate with humanitarians.
  • Reaching an electricity source to tether the drone in a refugee camp can be very challenging. 

Should we use it in a pandemic?

 7. Mapping

mapping photo still captured by a drone

What is it? 

Drone mapping gathers aerial data about a particular area to collate and analyse. Mapping from the air means that all kinds of data can be gathered — from photos, to temperature, to 3D topography. In the coronavirus pandemic, high resolution maps were used in combination with population data to show areas. 

This helps authorities figure out which areas have lots of people in them and what other considerations are in the area, like delivery routes, to decide things like what areas to shut down and where to put testing centres. 

What are the considerations/factors?

  • Authorities have the ability to work from anywhere
  • Provides a detailed visual overview of what is going on in a city

Should we use it in a pandemic?

This is a great lesson to lead into more mapping-based lessons in your classroom. Students will have this real-world application to attach it to and understand what mapping is used for. You could set up a ‘disaster relief’ team to capture aerial photos of a town. 

Or, if you want to mix things up with some slightly lighter content, you could show students how to use aerial mapping to figure out how much shade your school has to know how many trees to plant to keep everyone cool. 

There are so many imaginative ways in which to use drones, both in the classroom and the real world. By teaching our students how to critically, creatively, and ethically use technology, we are setting them up to create a much better world. 

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