Lego pieces littered the floor. Sean described to me his newest idea for a robot design that featured a worm gear. Paul showed Erik his manipulator prototype, which spun widely, threatening any robot—or person–that came near it. Others crowded alongside each other and chatted about their days while piecing robots together.
Unified Robotics is a program designed to bring robotics to students of all abilities. A Unified Robotics team consists of athletes, or students with disabilities, and partners, or students without intellectual disabilities. Together pairs of athletes and partners build Lego Mindstorm robots. The season culminates with an inter-school competition consisting of a sumo-robot challenge.
Teams pit their robots against each other in a black “sumo-ring”, where robots use an array of sensors to locate and push the other robot out of the ring while ensuring they stay within the field. Hosted by the Pacific Science Center, this year the competition welcomed over 30 teams from 14 different schools.
A friend of mine, Mayank, first brought the program to my attention and we soon teamed up to bring the idea of starting a Unified team to the special education class. We managed to form a team of ten athletes and partners: Alex, Erik, Kyungmo, Mayank, Miles, Erik, Paul, Sean, Yerin and me.
The team was not perfect. Many times, students preferred to watch Youtube videos while all work on robots was abandoned. At first, this frustrated me—I believed making constant progress was necessary to have the club be considered a success. But, the goal was not to build robots; it was to create an inclusive environment for people of all abilities. In fact, some of our best times together didn’t involve robots at all.
When we went to the competition, we didn’t do as well as we’d hoped. Our team groaned as our robots repeatedly faced fatal attacks that ejected them from the sumo ring. Yet, in other ways, we did win. I got to see Alex, who had always been rather reserved, jump up and down cheering our robot to victory. I got to see Sean, who had always been uncomfortable in front of cameras, carefully explain the robot’s drive system to a television crew. That was more than enough.
When one of the judges at our competition asked Erik for his favorite memory of the team, I was surprised (and a bit horrified) to hear him recount the time I had attempted to make popcorn for everyone and left it in the microwave where it proceeded to catch fire. After all, nothing unites people like struggling to put out burned popcorn.
I do not see many students with special needs in my day to day school life. Unified Robotics changed that. It demonstrated to me that everyone has
skills and that my fellow teammates were just my peers who had a shared interest in robotics. As I worked to expand Unified Robotics, it exposed me to new perspectives and shattered stereotypes I previously held.