High school

Computational thinking, computer science, engineering

Last Updated Dec 1, 2020

In this activity, students will use computational thinking to write a code sequence for a drone to survey an arctic map.  This activity is based on the work done by Northrop Grumman in Operation Polar Eye.

Operation Polar Eye is an environmental tech initiative that allows the San Diego National Zoo and Northrop Grumman to collaborate to help track polar bear activity in a non-invasive manner.

Polar bears can only start hunting with the formation of ice. As it takes longer for the formation to begin and earlier to melt, polar bears are put into a precarious position of an extremely shortened hunting season. Northrop Grumman’s drone can survive the harsh environment of the arctic and allows scientists to study the formation of ice and the movement of polar bears as they navigate through their shortened season. They hope to use this information to get a better understanding of the damage that is happening to the environment and help the survival of the species moving forward.

Learning Objectives

Students will know

  • What Operation Polar Eye is, and how it’s achieving its goals.
  • What computational thinking is.
  • STEM careers related to Operation Polar Eye.

Students will understand

  • How computational thinking is used in STEM

Students will be able to

  • Write a code sequence.
  • Debug a peer’s code sequence.
Standards Alignments + Connections

Next Generation Science Standards Connections

Science and Engineering Practice: Using Mathematics and Computational Thinking

  • Create and/or revise a computational model or simulation of a phenomenon, designed device, process, or system.

Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills Connections

FCS.1D: create algorithms for the solution of various problems

CS1.4F: design a solution to a problem

CS1.4H: identify and debug errors

Activities to Gather Evidence

Northrop Grumman's Environmental Tech: Operation Polar Eye

Operation PolarEye had an urgent mission: gather information about polar bears and their habitat and use it to save them from extinction due to climate change. This innovative collaboration was a partnership between engineers at Northrop Grumman and wildlife biologists at San Diego Zoo Global. Engineers designed a remote-controlled, Unmanned Aerial System (UAS) that can withstand the harsh conditions of the Arctic and carry different kinds of cameras to collect a range of data without disturbing the bears. It can actually recognize polar bears as well as take multispectral images of ice.

Computational Thinking

Four key ideas:

  1. Decomposition
  2. Pattern Recognition
  3. Abstraction
  4. Algorithm Design

Video Resources

Additional Operation Polar Eye Videos 

Computational Thinking

Career Video Snapshots 

Think Like a Drone

Students will work in groups to create a process that maximizes the area surveyed by a drone; then follow another group’s process to calculate the area covered. Through this process, students gain an understanding of how computational thinking skills can be applied to a real-world problem-solving scenario such as Northrop Grumman’s environmental tech initiative, Operation Polar Eye.


  1. Students are placed into breakout groups of 3-4 students each.
  2. Each breakout group opens the corresponding Google Doc map for their number (Example: breakout group 1 will open map 1).
  3. Each breakout group document contains 4 unique maps for each student to claim and complete.
    • The objective of this activity is to cover the largest area of land on the grid using only the drone commands given. (up, down, left, right 1 space and up, down, left, right 5 spaces).
      • Rules
        • Begin where your drone is located on your map.
        • You cannot repeat squares; only go over each square once.
        • You cannot go over the mountains, you must go around them.
        • You may only make 20 total commands.
    • Students will have 10 minutes to create their solution.
  4. When coding time expires, students trade maps with the next highest available number (student 1 will review student 2, student 2 will review student 3, the last student in each group will review student 1).
  5. The remaining time will be used to debug and evaluate the code developed by the original student.  Students will use the given code to count the area covered and mark any errors (crossing over mountains, going outside the map, etc).

Instructional Walkthrough


Discuss as a group how the activity went.

Questions to think about

    1. What was the most challenging part of the activity?
    2. What was the easiest part of the activity?
    3. What challenges did you face in planning out your drone’s path and coding sequence?

Exit Ticket


  1. What career paths in STEM are available?
  2. What STEM opportunities exist in their current field of interest?
  3. How do you think computational thinking skills are applied outside of non-programming problems?