Robotics track at youth slam: A promising practice in engaging students with visual impairments

DO-IT Factsheet #469

Dr. Stephanie Ludi, software engineering professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology, is working to increase the participation of people with visual impairments in computing fields. The Robotics Track, part of the 2009 National Federation of the Blind Youth Slam [1] summer camp, is designed for high school students who have visual impairments and would like to learn more about computing. Through hands-on experiences in robotics, participants learn about robotics-related computing careers, about college life, and how robotics is applied in the real world. The objectives of the robotics track are to promote student interests and skills in this area robotics via accessible, engaging team activities and technology choices.

Using funds from an AccessComputing minigrant Dr. Ludi provided fifteen students with an accessible, multi-day experience where they worked in teams to program Lego Mindstorms NXT [2] robots using the NXC programming language. Each three-person team, called a pod, had a mentor who was also visually impaired. Two undergraduate students with disabilities also worked to assist Dr. Ludi with the five pods. By providing these students the opportunity to work together on different challenges over a week they expanded their technical skills while being mentored by university students and community volunteers. The overriding challenge, to have a robot follow a track and navigate around an obstacle, was a driver for smaller activities – called mini-challenges – to give the students hands-on learning, where they reflected on their learning and built confidence.

The Robotics Track timeline was:

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 with peers in a team and interacted with college students and mentors with visual impairments in an engaging environment.

The Robotics Track is a promising practice for creating an environment where students and mentors, regardless of their level of computer background or visual impairment, are able to explore robotics through teamwork and problem-solving skills. In addition, students learn about robotics-related careers and the transition to college from near-peer mentors and alumni with disabilities.

For more information, visit the Youth Slam Robotics Track replication package [3].

AccessComputing [4] minigrant activities have been funded by the National Science Foundation as part of the Broadening Participation in Computing (BPC) program of the Directorate for Computer and Information Sciences and Engineering (CISE) (Grant #CNS-0540615, CNS-0837508, and CNS-1042260).