Changing the Face of Robotics

Team 4911 Makes FIRST Robotics Accessible to the Special Needs Community

“Be somebody who makes everybody feel like a somebody.” These profound words, courtesy of Kid President, aptly describe a new initiative recently undertaken by the students of the “CyberKnights,” King’s High School’s award winning FIRST Robotics Competition Team 4911 from Seattle, Wash.

The brainchild of the team’s CEO, senior Delaney Foster, the initiative, called Unified Robotics, brings students from King’s High School to Roosevelt High School, one of the largest schools in Seattle and home of the first successful program in Seattle oriented around students with Asperger's syndrome, a form of high functioning autism. For a variety of reasons (safety, staff support, and curriculum that is not modifiable), students at Roosevelt are currently unable to participate in engineering and computer science classes. Thanks to Delaney’s vision, that knowledge is coming to them in a different way — through FIRST and robotics.

Every Wednesday afternoon, students from the FIRST Robotics Competition team at King’s High take a bus to Roosevelt High to work alongside students from Roosevelt, Ballard, and Garfield (three Seattle public schools) with a variety of skill levels, to design and build robots in small teams using NXT kits made by LEGO®.

Unified Robotics was inspired by Delaney’s sister Kendall, who has autism, and is modeled after the Special Olympics Project UNIFY®, which provides opportunities for young people of all abilities to be leaders in their schools and communities by promoting equality and acceptance. In looking for ways to engage Kendall in robotics beyond cheering on the CyberKnights, Delaney says she looked for a robotics program for high-school students with special needs to learn alongside peer Mentors. Not only could she not find such a program, but she couldn’t find a program aimed specifically for students with special needs. As such, she decided that if there was to be one, she’d have to start it and, with the support of her parents and the students/Mentors of CyberKnights, she's never looked back.

Unified Robotics is a student-designed and implemented program and the first of its kind to bring the world of STEM and robotics to high-school students with special needs. Open to students with a variety of learning challenges, the six-week afterschool program is an inclusive, friendly, hands-on way to introduce students to robotics, programming, and engineering.

“I believe that by offering this club [Unified Robotics] to students with a variety of different skill levels,” explains Delaney, “we have the opportunity to broaden their interests and experiences in STEM-related activities, as well as teach them basic life and job skills that will open up more doors in their futures."

The team recruiting process initially posed unexpected challenges. Many students weren’t initially excited about doing robotics, either due to unfamiliarity or possible fear of failure. The King’s High students re-clarified that the project would be fun and competitive, and promised that students would be supported at all levels. They further emphasized that “no prior experience or interest in robotics was necessary.” These words hit the mark and the students at Roosevelt soon signed on.

As part of the pilot program, each team built and programmed a robot at the speed and level of the individual students so that everyone was included in the process. Some of the students are intellectually brilliant, but do not have the language or social skills to communicate their capabilities. Because of the variety of both capabilities and challenges, success was gauged individually. For one, that meant inserting an NXT peg into a hole, or connecting two LEGO pieces. This could take an hour to accomplish, yet the students demonstrated a level of tenacity that none of the FIRST students had ever witnessed. When students accomplished their individual tasks there was a wide-spread celebration among the group. Knowing that their individual accomplishment contributed to the success of the team was very powerful and a great source of pride for all.

“We learned ‘success’ has many different definitions. In our previous experiences, success primarily meant building the champion robot. This program is not only teaching the students with special needs robotics and engineering, it is teaching the robotics students about acceptance and success.”

Delaney Foster

CEO, FIRST Team 4911

The pilot culminated in a friendly competition between the teams in late November, which was more celebration than competition. Tom Ledcke, special education teacher at Roosevelt High School, is very pleased with the program. “The [FIRST] robotics team from King’s High School generously offered my students the opportunity to participate in the area of engineering and programming in a fun and social setting,” he says. “I appreciate the hands-on approach and modifications that are made to suit the individuals’ learning level. More importantly, I am witnessing meaningful relationships developing as young people learn about each other’s lives.”

The pilot is also getting noticed at the school district level. “I am so proud of our students,” said Eric Rasmussen, King’s Schools Superintendent. “One of our goals at King’s is to inspire hearts and equip minds as we develop the leaders of the future. Seeing our robotics team step out and engage with their peers with special needs in this way demonstrates who we are.”

“Unified Robotics is the best of FIRST in that it is FIRST Robotics [Competition] students recognizing a serious national-level problem, taking initiative, and providing a solution by building a program that addresses that problem and shows that students with special needs are capable and interested in STEM.”

Mikel Thompson, Teacher

King’s High School

Mom, Noelle Foster, is also excited by the success of the initiative, especially as to how it relates to options for Kendall’s future. “I have a hard time considering what lies beyond high school for Kendall” she says. “It’s scary to imagine her out in the world and envision her in the type of job she will likely have. I want to give Kendall more opportunities for her future,” she explains. “She will not find happiness in doing repetitive mundane tasks, she needs to be challenged and progress.” Noelle believes that this experience had indeed made a difference. “Something changed in Kendall this past month,” she continues. “When she was doing Unified Robotics, she gained confidence in her skills when she learned how to program her robot. She’s never accomplished anything like that before, and it was life changing for her. Our family has renewed hope for Kendall’s future.”

The FIRST students counted on teaching the Roosevelt students about robotics, but they certainly didn’t count on being dramatically impacted themselves from the experience. CyberKnights team member Eva Lu shares, “Unified Robotics gives us the opportunity to see the world from a different angle. I’ve learned from (Kendall) too. Before, I was the kind of person who wanted to take control all the time, but she taught me to not take leadership, but to teach and help her through this process.”

Teammate Tammy Nguyen agrees. “Unified Robotics has been the most meaningful part of [FIRST] robotics for me, and [FIRST] robotics has been the most meaningful part of my high school experience” she sh,ares. “Seeing Delaney create something so impactful, I realized that the most important purpose of knowledge, talent, and skills is not to be the top expert or winner. It’s more important to apply what we know and help other people in the ways that we can.”

Ben Birchman and Daniel Wang, also teammates from CyberKnights, were unsure of what to expect and admit to being a little apprehensive at first. That quickly changed as they started working with the students at Roosevelt. Ben shares “Some of them have difficulty working with their hands, but they’re patient and consistent and keep trying until they get it. These students are very smart, for sure they could have opportunities for designing and engineering.” Daniel admits to being “blown away by these students’ enthusiasm and vigor for robotics!” Working with Joseph during the pilot, Daniel observes, “His love for people, his humor, and his willingness to persevere puts a smile on my face every single time. Even when things didn’t work the way we expected, he gives me a high-five, and then says ‘let’s go fix it.’”

The goal is for Unified Robotics to sustain at Roosevelt High School and to expand to all other Seattle-area high schools next year so that the competition will be inter-school. Delaney believes that the team, and FIRST, have the opportunity to broaden interest and experience in STEM-related activities to the special needs community and teach them basic life and job skills that will open up more doors in their futures. Her vision is to bring the initiative national so that FIRST robotics is accessible to every high-school student. In order for that to happen, support from the FIRST community is essential to the success and continuation of Unified Robotics. Delaney and the team are currently compiling a “How To” manual and a “Wish List” in order to make the program scalable so that FIRST Robotics Competition and FIRST Tech Challenge teams across the country could emulate the program in their community.

The team has created a video about the Unified Robotics initiative and been receiving some great press in the Seattle area including a piece on KING 5 News in Seattle. They also hope to present at the FIRST Championship Conferences in an effort to create awareness to other teams/Mentors attending the event and are currently at work on what they hope will be a successful submission.

The members of Team 4911 have been dramatically impacted from this entire experience. The team has gained acceptance, cooperation, and leadership skills as well as learned patience, empathy, and understanding that will help them succeed in all areas of their lives. For Delaney, as a self-admitted “outspoken advocate for inclusion education,” this is equally as important as exposing STEM concepts and tasks to students with special needs.

Back to Winter 2016 Newsletter