The push for STEM education is evident in schools, clubs and community centers just about everywhere. But Delaney Foster saw that there was a population still largely excluded from the race for programs in science, technology, engineering and math: kids with learning challenges — kids like her sister, Kendall, who has autism.
So Delaney, a senior at King’s High School in Shoreline, decided to do something about it. She formed a robotics team that welcomed Kendall and the other students in her special-education program at Seattle’s Roosevelt High School.
“It was important for me that this club could be for anyone,” Delaney said. Her sister, also a senior, had been stuck watching Delaney from the sidelines as she participated in Cyberknights, the King’s robotics team. “I wanted this to be a robotics club she could be part of.”
Delaney convinced her fellow Cyberknights to pair up with special-ed students at Roosevelt to create the Unified Robotics Club. For six weeks, the 25-student club met weekly and worked on their robots in small teams. Last week they had a season finale “Battle Bots” competition in which teams tried to knock each others’ robots out of the ring.
Students, teacher advisors and parents agreed that the club has been a success — and they’re looking to expand it around the Seattle district and beyond.
“We’re really hoping to make this a national program,” Delaney said.
She’s writing up a blueprint to help others form similar clubs and she has a strategy for expansion that leverages two existing programs for students: Washington FIRST Robotics and Unified Sports. The Cyberknights are part of FIRST Robotics, a national program with state chapters that encourage kids to participate in science and technology through after-school clubs that include robotics and Legos. And Roosevelt participates in Unified Sports, a Special Olympics program that matches developmentally typical students with kids with special needs for athletic teams.
“We believe it would be a wonderful partnership between two nonprofit organizations,” said Erin McCallum, president of Washington FIRST Robotics. “What King’s is doing is unique, but it really is [in line with] the culture of FIRST, where groups of students come together and learn robotics, but they also learn incredible community and leadership skills.”
Students from both schools were apprehensive about the experiment when it launched.
“At first it was kind of hard,” admitted Eva Lu, a junior from King’s, to figure out how to best work with the Roosevelt students. Eva was paired with Kendall, who initially would get sidetracked or had seizures that interrupted their efforts.
“I encouraged her and said, ‘We’re going to take this step by step,’” Eva said. She remembers how thrilled Kendall was when they built and programmed the robot and it started moving on its own for the first time. “She was so happy,” Eva said, and it reminded her of her own elation when she successfully programmed her first robot.
Over the weeks, the students have developed unexpected friendships. The special-ed students “are just like my friends I go to school with,” Eva said, adding that she and Kendall liked talking about school and movies.
Joseph Bosma-Moody, a senior at Roosevelt, appreciated the opportunity to engage in a club that’s non-athletic in nature. He likes robotics and really enjoyed what he learned “working with my group,” Joseph said. “Working together as a group is so important.”
Noelle Foster, Kendall and Delaney’s mom, said that many of the Roosevelt students were unsure if the robotics team was for them, but she convinced them to check it out and everyone joined in the end.
The hope is to have some of the students in Roosevelt’s traditional robotics team continue working with the special-ed students in the spring. Then the Cyberknights could spread the program by mentoring students at another Seattle school. Already some kids from Garfield and Ballard high schools have come to check out the Unified Robotics Club, which recently put together a video explaining the team.
“On so many levels, it’s just gone brilliantly,” said Mikel Thompson, coach for the Cyberknights. He’s been amazed at the tenacity, problem solving and creativity shown by the Roosevelt students and how much the King’s students have learned from them. Thompson is glad to have the chance to breakdown stereotypes about STEM and give kids of all abilities access to skills so essential for the modern economy.
“There’s this stigma that you have to be smart geeky kids” to do robotics,” Thompson said. “That’s a myth.”