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

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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 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 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:

  • Day 1 (6 hours): Introduced students to robots, programming tools (BricxCC), and basic programming concepts to allow robots to move, sense, and react to basic logic.
  • Day 2 (4 hours): Students built on skills to work on first part of challenge in small teams to complete the tutorial programs. Programming, problem-solving, and teamwork skills were important. With time remaining, student teams completed a mini-challenge, the shapes challenge, whereby robots were able to trace shapes such as squares, triangles, polygons, and stars. Sound was also used, as the robots used sound to help indicate their progress during their demonstrations to the class.
  • Day 3 (4 hours): Students worked on line-following and obstacle-avoidance mini challenges, often changing the challenge to show their creativity. After this demonstration, the students started the final challenge using the skills and code from earlier work.
  • Day 4 (4 hours): Went on field trip to the robotics lab at the University of Maryland. Upon return, they had a discussion about robots and technology and possible related careers.
  • Day 5 (4 hours): Students finalized testing and programming issues to solve the follow the line and avoid the obstacle challenge. All teams demonstrated their solution to the group.

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.

AccessComputing 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).

Last update or review: January 09, 2014