Delaney Foster grew up seeing how important inclusion can be for those with intellectual disabilities. Her sister, Kendall, was diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder, and Foster attended an inclusive school in PK and kindergarten. The opportunity to share the life-changing lessons she’d learned came in high school when Foster exerted her student voice and started a robotics program in Seattle high schools for people like her sister.
Modeled on Special Olympics Unified Sports teams, Special Olympics Unified Robotics is a student-designed and implemented program that brings STEM and robotics to high school students with special needs during a six-week after-school program.
Mainstream high school students work one-on-one with Special Olympics athletes to design, build and program robots using Lego Mindstorms kits. The teams then participate in a tournament-style competition where they present their robot with its unique features and battle in a predetermined game format. At the first championship tournament in December 2016, teams were challenged with a “battle bots” game where they used their robots to push the competing robot out of a ring.
“I wanted to bring robotics to the special needs students and to my peers who hadn’t worked with individuals with special needs. Inclusive programs help both groups of students, and this program shows that students are very capable of doing things you may not see at first,” Foster says.
Student Eva Lu has been involved in Unified Robotics since the program started. “Working with the athletes helped me look at the world in a different way. Sometimes they come up with very creative ideas that I wouldn’t have thought of because they don’t follow traditional rules,” Lu says.
For last year’s competition, Lu’s partner suggested that their robot include a spinning wheel on the front that could be used to lift the competitor’s robot off the ground, making it easier to push it out of the ring. “I was thinking about the physics and the math, but he was thinking about an outside influence, and that was cool and inspiring. In fact, it worked super well!”
Student Joy Mogg partnered with three athletes with autism. Like Lu, she says the learning goes both ways. After meeting with students, Mogg did some research into autism to better understand the disorder. “Before I thought in steireotypes. I recently discovered that I have ADHD and I thought it was a bad thing. But seeing how high-functioning and inspiring the athletes are helped me with my own diagnosis.”
Computer science teacher and robotics coach Mikel Thompson agrees. “Across the board, we saw very strong tenacity and mental toughness in the athletes. I also noticed that the athletes were very self-managing. They had tools and they had self-awareness that was beyond my students. It’s a skill set my students could learn from them,” Thompson says.
Beyond improved understanding, Thompson points to the value Unified Robotics and similar programs can provide to industry. He believes the rise in the number of people identified as being on the autism spectrum means businesses will need to find ways to leverage the skills of those who think and interact differently. “Industry leaders are learning that people who think differently are insanely creative and that they can contribute in ways that were not possible before,” Thompson says. “Many students on the autism spectrum are every bit as capable, and some are brilliant in STEM-related areas.”
Lu says the athletes often don’t recognize their potential or are intimidated by the idea of participating in a robotics team – until they try. “My athlete was hesitant to join, so we invited her to come and observe. As soon as we got the Lego kits out, her hands were on the kit and she didn’t want to leave when her mom came to pick her up. By the end of the season, she said she couldn’t wait for the next season to get here.”
Dave Lenox, president and CEO of Special Olympics Washington, assures there’s no tokenism in Unified Robotics – athletes are charged with making meaningful contributions to the team. He, too, notes the two-way nature of the learning. Neurotypical students tell him that athletes think differently about the robot and ask great questions.
He shared the story of an athlete who, each time a Lego piece was added, asked his student partner what the part did. This got the student thinking – if I can’t explain it, maybe I don’t need it. “So this team ended up building a small robot that was fast and could make contact first,” Lenox explains. “The other robots were big, bulky and slow because the purpose for each piece wasn’t considered. The robotics students learned that the athletes had good questions, and the athletes learned that if they didn’t know something, they could ask. It turned out that their questions were profound,” Lenox says.
Unified Robotics now includes 12 schools in the Seattle area as well as schools in Texas, Hawaii and Oklahoma. Schools in Maine, Australia and India have also expressed interest in the program.
As for Foster, founder of the program, she’s now a freshman at George Washington University, but she designed the program to be sustainable and is excited about the idea of robotics reaching students and Special Olympic athletes worldwide.
Lenox says the program has another benefit for the athlete: It allows some of them to find their tribe. “Our athletes are not one-dimensional. Some of them might have some engineering genius going on, and maybe no one has paid attention to that before. The people on that field just might be your tribe, they might understand you and be able to talk to you. It’s the idea that instead of stigma, we (the athletes) became the cool people.”
Find out how to bring Unified Robotics to your school with help from the Special Olympics Unified Sports guidebook.