PacSci Perspectives


Building Bots and Breaking Down Barriers

by | Oct 31, 2017

Local Competitive Robotics Teams Create Inclusivity for People of All Abilities

Judges discuss team's robotic creations during 2016 Unified Robotics Championship at Pacific Science Center.

Judges discuss team’s robotic creations during 2016 Unified Robotics Championship at Pacific Science Center.

Picture this: two robots, built and controlled by high school students, battling to push the other out of a large ring like Sumo wrestlers, while hundreds of people cheer in the crowd. This was the scene last year during the Unified Robotics Championship held at Pacific Science Center.

Robotics competitions among high school students are on the rise. FIRST Robotics is an international non-profit organization that inspires students to become leaders in science and technology through building robots to compete against one another. During a school year, 460,000 students participate on over 52,000 FIRST Robotics teams. One of those students is Delaney Foster of the CyberKnights FIRST Robotics Team.

As an active participant in FIRST Robotics, Delaney, along with her mother, Noelle, and her sister, Kendall, would travel to competitions. Kendall loved watching her sister compete, but never had the opportunity to do so at the same level as her sister because she has autism. For years, Delaney saw the opportunities for her sister to be involved in group activities decline, so during her sophomore year of high school, she decided to change that.

Delaney began to build curriculum for a student-led robotics team for special education students called Unified Robotics. By recruiting her fellow FIRST Robotics teammates, each special education student was paired with a FIRST Robotics participant. Each set of partners had to learn how to work with one another to build a robot to compete in a match.

“The students began to realize that success is totally different for each person,” says Noelle, who is also a mentor for Unified Robotics. “For some, success was connecting two LEGO pieces together. It’s about the effort.”

For many of the students with special needs, this was the first opportunity they had in high school to participate in an extracurricular activity or team setting. For some of the FIRST Robotics students, it was their first experience working with special education students.

“I had parents of the students with special needs tell me that the day that their child was going to participate in Unified Robotics was the easiest day of the week because they had something to look forward to. When I would get to the school to help set up for practice, there would be a line of students outside the door.”

Founder of Unified Robotics, Delaney and her sister Kendall at a robotics competition.

Founder of Unified Robotics, Delaney and her sister Kendall at a robotics competition.

Unified Robotics not only gives students with special needs the chance to participate in an inclusionary activity, but helps make science, tech, engineering and math more accessible. By learning how to build a robot out of LEGO parts, or code a simple computer program, these students gain invaluable skills that could help open doors in the workplace later.

“We had a special needs student who had participated in FIRST Robotics before, but his teammates had him only learn the rules because they couldn’t find a right fit for his skills. When he came to Unified Robotics, he would come up with these completely out-of-the-box ideas that many of the partner students didn’t think could be done. He would then start to build, make his ideas come to life and they would work. He now is in college majoring in Computer Science.”

For the partner students, their perceptions change about students with disabilities. They learn how to become leaders in a group setting, and how to adjust their communication style to accomplish tasks with the special education student they are working with.

“Unified Robotics is extremely important for the partner students as well because they are our leaders of tomorrow. They will be the leaders in the tech industry; they will be making hiring decisions. The partner students realize that just because people with special needs think differently, it doesn’t make them unintelligent and diversity in the workforce makes businesses and communities stronger.”

Unified Robotics started with just six teams and 24 students. It has now grown to over 36 teams from 15 schools in three states and is a certified sport by the Special Olympics. Organizations like Microsoft have taken interest in working with Unified Robotics, and Pacific Science Center will be the location for the 2017 Championship in November.

“The students are so inspiring. Seeing how my daughter, Kendall, has changed, and how before she had no interest in technology. Now she’s learning to code and is interested in robots,” Noelle comments. “Unified Robotics is opening doors to STEM for students with special needs, and it’s teaching partner students the importance of inclusivity. The experience often changes their perspective of their peers.”

As part of our efforts to enable access to our facilities, programs, and experiences to people of all abilities, Pacific Science Center is proud to host the 2017 Unified Robotics Championship on November 12 for the second consecutive year.