Seattle’s Pacific Science Center is busy on your average weekend, but this past Saturday it was bursting. Between the life-sized bug exhibit and the dome of the Boeing IMAX theater, a unique competition was taking place.
Students paced between swarms of supporters and the edges of four square arenas that were taped onto the carpet. They tuned out the sounds of the crowd to focus on the plastic-on-plastic crash of their robots — battling sumo-style to push competitors out of the ring.
This was the scene at the first ever Unified Robotics Championship. The contest had all the trappings of a high school robotics club — chattering students, fiercely decorated bots and plenty of friendly competition.
But this weekend’s championship was made unique by its participants.
In Unified Robotics, athletes with intellectual disabilities team up with partners from the mainstream student body to build and battle their bots.
“The teams are basically 50/50, and the idea is not only to provide opportunities for the student with special needs, but to break down barriers and help develop more of an inclusive mindset on everybody’s part,” said Mikel Thompson, a computer science teacher and robotics coach at Kings High School who helped start the program.
The inspiration for Unified Robotics began two years ago, with sisters Delaney and Kendall Foster, seniors at Kings and Roosevelt High school, respectively. Kendall, who has autism, was the number one fan of Kings’ robotics team, but her family wasn’t able to find a team for her to participate in.
Delaney decided she would start a program for people like her sister, modeled on Special Olympics Unified Sports teams that already exist at many high schools. Unified Sports works with schools to set up teams that are half students with intellectual disabilities and half students from the mainstream student body, as a way to encourage more contact between the two groups of students.
She and Thompson led a pilot of the Unified Robotics program last year, with about 20 students from Kings and Roosevelt High School. This year, the program is an official sport in Special Olympics Unified Sports program, and 125 students from 12 schools around Washington participated in the championship on Saturday.
“We live in a day and age where digital fluency and competence in technology is a mandatory skill set,” Thompson told GeekWire at the event. But all too often students with special needs are excluded from technology and engineering classes, or activities like robotics club, he said.
Even though the robots are only made from Lego, the program is a way to make inroads for tech education among a more diverse student population.
Jodi Gedansky, a special education teacher at Seattle’s Eckstein Middle School and one of the school’s Unified Robotics coaches, said she brought the program to her school because she realized many of her students love and excel in coding and computer science.
“A lot of the kids, according to the parents, were super excited to have an opportunity to do robotics,” she said. “We have great tech programs at our school, but there’s no after school robotics program.”
Thompson and Gedansky said it isn’t just the athletes who are learning and breaking down barriers — their partners are also learning new skills and having experiences they would never otherwise have.
Sam Hansen and Einar Pedersen learned that first hand.
Hansen, a junior at Ingram High School with an intellectual disability, learned about Unified Robotics at a Special Olympics fair, and was excited to take part. He teamed up with Pedersen, a freshman at Kings, because Ingram doesn’t yet have a program.
They each used their strengths to design the robot: Pedersen is a computer science wiz, and coached Hansen on coding as they programmed the bot.
Hansen took the lead on building the hardware. He went for a simple design, without the bells and whistles that a lot of other teams used.
“But we discovered that’s actually pretty good, because that made our robot move a lot quicker, and it’s performed a lot smarter than other robots,” Pedersen said.
And perhaps more valuable than their technical skills, they have both learned about each other and their interests. Hansen loves cinema, and Pedersen likes programming and working with computers.
“They’re super kind to each other, and patient with each other, which is a big deal” said Jenny Hansen, Sam’s mother.
And although they boys didn’t make it to the playoffs in the competition this year, they said they are excited to try again next year.
Dave Lenox, president and CEO of Special Olympics Washington, said this kind of openness is exactly what makes Unified Robotics and other unified sports successful.
He was initially worried that Unified Robotics would be tokenism instead of a substantial program. He spoke to the robotics students who had taken part in the pilot and asked what Special Olympics athletes bring to their robotics team.
“And they said, oh my god, they think about the robot differently than we do,” Lenox said. “They ask questions that we didn’t think to ask because we think we know the answer already.”
This kind of wisdom from the athletes is a key part of the teams’ success, he said.
The program has become so popular that it has already spread to schools in Oklahoma and Texas, and Lenox said a variety of states and countries around the world are also interested in implementing the program.
“It gives you a lot of hope when you see young people that are this smart, and this open to learning from people who have intellectual disabilities,” he said.
Delaney and Kendall Foster graduated from high school this past summer, and are both pursuing further education outside their high school robotics teams. But their collaboration will continue to impact students around the world, and open up the world of engineering to any student who wants to build a robot.