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Accessible Robotic Programming Helps Teens Get into Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics

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A group picture of the participants and their robots after the workshop ended.
The participants and their robots.  

A robot on a table makes its way between barriers in a maze.
A robot navigating the maze.

A teenage girl sits at a laptop and programs commands for her robot.
Programming the robot.

A computer screen shows various commands that the robot must obey, such as
Commands that have been programmed.

Several students look on as a robot begins its attempt to knock over water bottles in a
A robot getting ready to knock over some obstacles.

People with college degrees tend to earn about twice as much money as people who don’t finish college. And people who major in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (often called the “STEM” fields) make even more and have an easier time finding jobs.

The key is making sure that young people with disabilities get access to good STEM jobs. In order to make that a reality, on June 21st, the World Institute on Disability (WID), in collaboration with WizKidz and Georgia Tech’s Human-Automation Systems Lab (HumAnS), hosted an ARoPability Workshop (that’s short for “Accessible Robotic Programming for Students with Visual Impairments”) at the Ed Roberts Campus in Berkeley, California.

Access to technology is especially important for people with disabilities, because they often are early adopters of technology and benefit disproportionately from it. However, they have also been largely left out of the development of that technology and the benefits of having those good STEM jobs. This workshop was designed to introduce young people to the opportunities available to them by allowing them to creatively explore options that may seem impossible and be a part of the tech sector, not just as users, but as engineers and developers. By teaching kids how to operate robots, this daylong event made science and technology fun, engaging, and real.

The Junior Blind of America and LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired recruited ten Bay Area teenagers between the ages of 14 and 19 with visual impairments or blindness to participate. They were divided into 5 teams of 2 students each who would work together to program and operate their robots. Three graduate students from Georgia Tech led the WhizKids-designed program, first introducing the participants to their Lego NXT robots and laptop computers and then beginning to teach them how they worked.

The way you control these robots is by writing software code on your computer and then connecting the robot to your computer via the USB port. The code you write is then transferred to the robot and it performs whatever actions you programmed. So, the leaders of this workshop taught the students how to program their robots to do things like walk forward 10 centimeters, turn left or right, and how many degrees they should turn.

There were two big keys to making this work for this particular group of students. The first was that Georgia Tech’s HumAnS lab had adapted Lego software to work with JAWS, a popular screen-reading program that helps blind people use Windows software, and with magnification software that helps people with visual impairments get a very close up view of what is on their screens. By doing this, they took the Lego software, which was inaccessible, and made it into an exciting tool that these young people could use.

The second big key was that they had adapted Nintendo Wii controllers to give the students tactile feedback for whatever their robots did.  So, whenever the robots went forward or backward, left or right, or even when they bumped into something, the Wii controllers would vibrate in certain ways, letting the young programmers know exactly what had happened!

Once the students had a grasp of how to program commands into their robots, it was time for the games to begin. First, they had to program their robots to navigate a maze with wooden blocks.  To do this, they initially “watched” as the workshop facilitator had his pre-programmed robot go through the maze. As the robot went, on each team one teammate would feel the vibrations the robot communicated to the Wii controller and tell the other teammate what the robot was doing. The other teammate would take notes and try to program their own robot to do the same thing. No team made it through the maze on their first try, but by the second or third try, most had it figured out!

Then they played “Kick the Can,” where they had to figure out ways to program their robots to knock over a bunch of water bottles and other barriers scattered around a table.  The challenge here was to figure out how to program the robot such that it would cover the highest percentage possible of the table’s surface to find the objects they had to “kick,” but without falling off. For example, some programmed their robots to methodically go back and forwards across the table, as though their robots were mowing a big football field, while another team had their robot go in a spiral, slowly but steadily creeping outwards and pushing over everything in its path.

In this way, the basic principles of computer programming and engineering were introduced to these 10 students. As Kat Zigmont, one of the WID employees who organized the event put it, “The best thing about the day was that before the workshop began, none of the students had done any computer programming, but by the end, all were confident that it was something they could learn and they hoped to learn more!”

WID will continue doing these types of workshops, so that more and more young people with all types of disabilities can become more involved in STEM fields. Check out the WID website for more information about this and other WID programs.

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