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Competing robots at the Special Olympics Unified Robotics Championship at Seattle’s Pacific Science Center in November 2017. (Special Olympics Unified Robotics Photo)

Sometimes a sea change can start with something as simple as wanting to make sure your sister feels included.

That was the case for the launch of Special Olympics Unified Robotics, a program that pairs students with intellectual disabilities to those without. It began with two Seattle-area schools in 2015, and has spread to Arizona, Hawaii, Iowa, Oklahoma and Texas. Five additional states are interested in starting teams. Two years ago, the Pacific Science Center hosted the first-ever Special Olympics robotics championship. And this past fall, the event drew 40 teams from Washington and roughly 3,000 attendees.

Unified Robotics was the vision of Delaney Foster, a robotics enthusiast whose older sister, Kendall, has autism.

Kendall didn’t have the same access to STEM education, sports teams and other programs, said Delaney, who is 19 and attending George Washington University in Washington, D.C. So when Delaney was at King’s High School in Shoreline she came up with an idea. She would partner her private school’s robotics team with students with learning disabilities at her sister’s school, located in nearby Seattle.

“Growing up close in age with Kendall, we have so many of the same interests and so much in common, but I’ve been given opportunities that she hasn’t,” Delaney said. “Not because she isn’t capable, but because of what society tells her she can and cannot do.”

Now the challenge is sustaining the growth of Unified Robotics and spreading the message that kids of all abilities have a place in technology.

From left to right: Noelle Foster with daughters Kendall and Delaney. (GeekWire Photo / Lisa Stiffler)

The program is structured so that the teams are student led, often by kids participating in FIRST Robotics Competition, a national program. King’s student Andrew LaPrade wrote a guidebook to help other schools get up and running.

But the teams still need one teacher to supervise the effort, and in some schools no one will step forward, said Noelle Foster, mother to Delaney and Kendall, who has taken the lead in promoting the program. And there’s the cost of the Lego kits used to build the robots — about $400 per kit — and the need for a tablet or laptop for programming the devices.

“My whole staff is volunteer high school students,” Noelle said. And many are graduating. “I need corporate intervention right now. United Robotics needs staff. We need somebody to help with the marketing. The fundraising that we’ve done, it’s us — it’s a family and high school students.”

There is some community support. Redmond-based Microsoft has donated Surface Pro tablets for teams to use and Seattle’s Science Center has provided space for two championships so far.

“This is very much a commitment for us, and we’d be happy to host it again,” said Science Center CEO Will Daugherty.

“We strongly believe that we need to ensure that everybody in the community can benefit from all of the experiences and rewards of curiosity and critical thinking,” he said. “And that includes people of all intellectual abilities.”

Delaney, far right, with fellow teammates at a Unified Robotics meeting at Seattle’s Roosevelt High School in December 2015. (GeekWire Photo / Lisa Stiffler)

Delaney, a sophomore in mechanical engineering at George Washington, is still pursuing her passion for robotics as a tool to help people who are intellectually disabled. She has an internship with assistant professor Chung Hyuk Park, an expert in assistive robotics, working on a project that uses robots to help children with autism learn how to interact socially.

Delaney “has great passion for helping students with autism,” Park said by email. “And she has actively created good programs through her Unified Robotics program.”

A parade of robotics teams at the Special Olympics Unified Robotics Championship in November 2017. (Special Olympics Unified Robotics Photo)

Launching Unified Robotics took a leap of faith.

“I was afraid when I first started the program that the students on my team would not be up for it,” Delaney said. “We don’t even have special ed at my high school. It is very intimidating for someone who has not interacted with someone with an intellectual disability.”

But after an icebreaker pizza party, the students clicked and Unified Robotics was born.

Kendall, who is 21, was part of the original team. She is now enrolled in Project SEARCH at the University of Washington where she’s learning job skills. She has an internship on campus, and hopes to find a paying job following her graduation from the one-year program in June.

“With the rates of autism growing as they are, these people have skills and need to be employed,” Delaney said. “It’s not that they aren’t good enough to get a job, it’s just that people don’t know how to figure out their skills and utilize their skills.

“They see the world in such a different way — in Unified Robotics, these students are coming up with ideas that others aren’t,” she said. “These students are so capable, and I want the world to see that.”

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