Youth Slam Robotics Track

Dr. Stephanie Ludi, a software engineering professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology, works to increase the participation of people with visual impairments in computing fields. She created Robotics Track, which was integrated within the 2009 National Federation of the Blind (NFB) Youth Slam summer camp. The Robotics Track was designed for high school students who have visual impairments and want to learn more about computing. The Robotics Track promotes student interests and skills in robotics via accessible, engaging team activities and technology choices. Through hands-on experiences, participants learned about robotics-related computing careers, college life, and real-world applications of robotics.

Participants and Location

Sixteen high school students with visual impairments participated in the activity. The students were recruited from the attendees at the NFB Youth Slam, which brings together hundreds of visually impaired youth to learn about a wide variety of STEM careers and develop related skills. Staff participants included Professor Ludi, an NFB staff member, five mentors with visual impairments who worked with pods, and two undergraduate student assistants who also had disabilities.

The workshop was held as part of the NFB Youth Slam, an established annual event since 2004, held on a Maryland University campus. This made it easier to recruit students with visual impairments because of the large group of students assembling for the Youth Slam. Holding the workshop as a part of the NFB Youth Slam also meant that students had access to the resources of the larger event. For example, room and board logistics were organized by the larger event, extracurricular activities were provided where students interacted with peers in other tracks, and the event held short sessions on self-advocacy and transitioning to college.

Activities and Logistics

The Robotics Track took place over the course of five days, during which students learned about the robots they were using, completed and demonstrated a robotics project, and met robotics professionals. Students worked in teams to program Lego Mindstorms NXT robots using the NXC programming language (based on C). Each three-person team had a mentor with a visually impairment. As they worked together on different challenges they expanded their technical skills. The overriding challenge, to have a robot follow a track and navigate around an obstacle, was a driver for mini-challenges that allowed students to reflect on learning and build confidence through hands-on experience.

In addition to the technical content, the Robotics Track gave students the opportunity to meet other students, mentors, and college students with similar interests from around the country. Participants worked in teams of their peers while being mentored by university students and community volunteers with visual impairments in an engaging environment.

The agendum proceeded as follows:

  • Day 1 (6 hours): Introduced students to robots, programming tools (BricxCC), and introductory programming concepts that allow robots to move, sense, and react to basic logic.
  • Day 2 (4 hours): For the first part of the challenge, students worked in small teams to complete tutorial programs using programming, problem-solving, and teamwork skills. Then teams got to work on the shapes mini-challenge, whereby robots were programmed to trace shapes such as squares, triangles, polygons, and stars. The robots used sound to help indicate their progress during demonstrations.
  • Day 3 (4 hours): Students completed line-following and obstacle-avoidance mini challenges. They were encouraged to modify the challenge to show their creativity. After this demonstration, the students started the final challenge utilizing the skills they gained and the code they wrote as a part of the mini-challenges.
  • Day 4 (4 hours): Students went on a field trip to the robotics lab at the University of Maryland. Upon returning to the classroom, they discussed robots and technology and possible related careers.
  • Day 5 (4 hours): Students finalized testing and programming issues to solve the line-following and obstacle-avoidance mini-challenges. All teams demonstrated their solutions to the group.

Dr. Ludi and the volunteers were all familiar with working with students with visual impairments, thereby helping them to teach the class in an appropriate manner. Materials were presented in accessible formats. During the field trip, robotics lab personnel allowed the students to touch objects in addition to hearing about them in lecture presentations.

Funding

Expenses were funded by an AccessComputing mini-grant and included:

  • Travel for two students to the event ($1200)
  • Stipend for two students ($672)
  • Six Lego Mindstorm kits ($1675)
  • Material design and prep ($1440)

AccessComputing, the Alliance for Access to Computing Careers, serves to increase the participation of people with disabilities in computing fields. AccessComputing partners with more than thirty postsecondary institutions and other organizations to apply evidence-based practices to: (1) help students with disabilities successfully pursue undergraduate and graduate degrees and careers in computing fields and (2) increase the capacity of postsecondary computing departments to fully include students with disabilities in computing courses and programs.

Outcomes

The students learned about robotics, programming, college studies, and careers from the mentors. An evaluation survey was administered at the end of the Robotics Track. On the evaluation, all of the students indicated that they gained programming skills, even the few who had some prior experience. Out of sixteen students, fourteen felt they had a positive to very positive experience and nine felt they wanted to pursue computing more in the future. Hopefully these students will take more computing classes and ultimately be prepared for, and consider enrolling in undergraduate computing programs.

The NFB benefited from the inclusion of the Robotics Track in their Youth Slam event, because it allowed them to diversify their program and offer youth with visual impairments the opportunity to gain robotics-programing skills. As a pleasant surprise, some of the mentors with visual impairments, who were NFB volunteers, were also more interested in robotics after participating.

Lessons Learned

For individuals who wish to conduct a similar activity for participants with visual impairments, project organizers suggest:

  • Consider how you will locate an audience of individuals with visual impairments. You may consider working with an already existing event, partnering with a school for the blind, or offering an online activity.
  • Engage volunteers in your project. Volunteers can help student groups and may benefit from learning the material as well.
  • Students who participate in your activity may find that they are interested in learning more about education or career paths in computing. Be prepared to provide them with accessible resources to learn more.
  • Pilot your activity with students and assistive technology ahead of time utilizing the materials you plan to use during your event. This can help fine-tune your plans and ensure that event day runs smoothly.

Resources

The following resources may be useful to those who wish to sponsor computing-related activities for students with visual impairments: