[Nfbc-info] Accessible Robotic Programming Helps Teens Get into Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics

David Andrews dandrews at visi.com
Thu Jul 26 01:32:31 UTC 2012

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

<http://www.proyectovision.net/english/news/49/index.html>Return to index

Description: A group picture of the participants and their robo

The participants and their robots.

Description: A robot on a table makes its way between barriers

A robot navigating the maze.

Description: A teenage girl sits at a laptop and programs comma

Programming the robot.

Description: A computer screen shows various commands that the

Commands that have been programmed.

Description: Several students look on as a robot begins its att

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 
<http://www.wid.org>World Institute on Disability (WID), in 
collaboration with <http://www.wizkidztech.org/>WizKidz and 
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 
<http://www.edrobertscampus.org/>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 day long 
event made science and technology fun, engaging, and real.

The <http://www.juniorblind.org>Junior Blind of America and 
<http://lighthouse-sf.org/>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 
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 
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. <http://www.wid.org>Check out the WID 
website for more information about this and other WID programs.
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