in My College Experiment

Unlike technology, the American educational system is ancient. 

Sure, we have laptops in high schools and most college professors are finally embracing electronic forms of communication and instruction, but that doesn’t cut it. The technological forces and service industries of this country are being innovated in leaps and bounds, yet the educational foundation that is being set for future generations is, in many ways, extremely slow. When the system itself is slow to innovate, how can it stress and pass on an innovative mindset to pupils? It can’t!


A Forbes article I read a while ago by Erica Swallow and Tony Wagner outlines the problem with traditional education using 5 major points: 

1. “Achievement is the focus.”

In traditional education, getting a better GPA or doing better than a classmate is the focus. It is somewhat self-focused, and doesn’t lead to working effectively with others to solve a problem. Innovation, on the other hand,  is a team sport. If you don’t work well with others, forward progress will be slowed.

2. “Specialization is celebrated and rewarded.”

Traditional education is in many ways concerned with staying in context and within the lines of subject content; Innovation is the exact opposite. It is all about crossing boundaries, and digging deeper into problems and their solutions from a variety of angles.

3. “Risk aversion is the norm.”

Traditional education penalizes mistakes, and most students strive to avoid risk. In contrast, innovation is deeply rooted in risk, and true innovators learn by trial and error. 

4. “Learning is profoundly passive.”

Pupils of traditional education are basically consumers. The sit in class for hours and absorb the information that is fed to them, and that is usually the extent of their so-called “learning”. Innovators are creators, and a truly innovative learning culture stresses creating, not passiveness. It stresses producing rather than consuming. 

5. “Extrinsic incentives drive learning.”

Instead of being extrinsically motivated by factors such as good grades or ultimately insignificant rewards, Innovators are motivated from within. They are inquisitive, exploratory, risk takers, oftentimes unstructured, passionate, and ultimately productive.


With this information in mind, I have decided to take a risk during my final semester at the University of Maine at Farmington. Instead of taking 4 classes this semester, I recently dropped a class to free up time in my life and over $1000. Why not be like most of my fellow students, slide the credit card, and slide through an extremely easy class? The answer is simple: I want to prove to myself that in many cases, more learning can be had for free online than in a college classroom. Sure, I would love to lie around, eat now-collectible Twinkies, and watch Workaholics with my new-found time and money. That’s not the point of this experiment however.


Should I take a class to satisfy a general requirement or should I build an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV)?

That’s an easy one! Build a UAV of course! My college experiment is simple: I want to learn more than I could in a generic class at school. I want to utilize the knowledge and skills I already have, and learn new ones for the future. Instead of hiding the journey, the whole process will be written here as if it were an actual class at school. On top of that, the whole “class” will be incredibly structured. Using a course syllabus from school as a model, an outline of my college experiment is below.


Course Syllabus

MCE001      My College Experiment


Goals for the class:

  • Learn more using a self-organized free online “class” than in a class at school
  • Directly apply the new knowledge to multiple areas in life
  • Build an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV)
  • Have an understanding of control theory in robots


Required materials:

  • A mind and some time
  • Computer with internet connection
  • Google
  • DIYdrones
  • Coursera
  • Notebooks
  • Various small hand tools for the build process



Much like life, this class will be about succeeding or failing and the achieving of goals. If the plane flies, comprehension of control theory is gained, and more is learned online than in class, it will be a success. If the goals aren’t met right away, more time and effort will be exerted until they are.


Acquired Skills and Knowledge:

  • Motivational skills: not giving up when something doesn’t go quite right, spending time and energy on a productive outlet
  • Research: pulling information from the internet to achieve a goal
  • Writing/ Communication: organizing thoughts in a way that others can comprehend it; writing regular updates on a blog
  • Hands-on skills: building an airplane
  • Electrical: wiring all the components right without destroying equipment
  • Science of flight: understanding why the airplane does what it does in the air
  • Basic programming and computer science
  • Knowledge of how to build something that will have many applications in the near future

About This Class:

This class will be based primarily from two sources: and Coursera. For the technical, hands-on portion, all the information will come from DIYdrones and multiple UAV and first person-view (FPV) forums. I’m going to be jumping right into the hands-on aspect of the project, and learning as I go. For the fundamental, theory-based portion of the course, the information will come from Coursera. This includes video lectures, practice exercises, supplemental information, and quizzes on the subject of control of mobile robots.


In Conclusion

I truly believe that in this circumstance, I can learn more from the internet sources than in a class at school. Obviously, this is completely relative to the course being taken, but I want to prove to myself that learning is not simply for  the classroom. Through sites like Coursera, more and more colleges are making steps towards making information available for those who want it. They are taking huge steps in the right direction, and may very well be role players in educational innovation. Innovation is what drives our country, but if the educational systems aren’t evolving alongside the economy, learning will become stagnant. 

As a side note, I built an octocopter this past summer. This project will be plane-based however.



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  • this is a terrific article thank you! i will use some of these methods and apply them myself

  • k0t4

    This is an interesting project and idea but I have a few issues with some of your theories. Dropping a college class and using the resulting money to do this seems a bit silly. The reason I say this is because most large universities have systems in place to allow students to create their own projects while getting support from staff and funding from the university. I also believe as helpful as online resources can be they are inherently bad because of the way most people use them. Most people use online resources to achieve one specific goal which can be helpful but can also lead to serious gaps in knowledge and can lead to many more issues further on. I do agree that education needs some drastic reforms but online resources especially free ones are rarely the answer. Untill there are real systems in place to accurately judge the knowledge you have gained from the online resources and a way to properly track and validate the users work they will continue to poor resources. With all that said I wish you the best of luck.

  • sprior

    Back in 1987 in my senior year as an undergrad I signed up for an independent study project in computer science. My proposal to the professor was that another student and I were going to build a hardware voice synthesizer (actually two, one for each of us) and he was going to give us the grade my computer verbally asked him for by the end of the semester. We pulled it off and got an A, but there was no backup plan whatsoever. Sounds similar to your grade criteria for the drone. The professors only regret at the end of the semester was that he hadn’t made us build one for him too.