Last fall, as Hood River Valley High School robotics FTC (First Tech Challenge) and FRC (First Robotics Challenge) students were preparing for the challenges of upcoming qualifying meets, some began an additional project: Bringing the joys of competition and camaraderie to differently abled students.
It began with Hood River Valley High School Math/Engineering Teacher Jeff Blackman reaching out to Learning Specialist Becky Franks. He had learned of the Unified Robotics program from a colleague in Washington, and he pitched the idea to his robotics students.
And those students ran with the idea.
“This group of students created Unified Robotics,” Franks said. “It’s really been their work. They caught the vision for it, put the effort into it, created it and maintained it. They do the instruction for it.
“Jeff and I just sit back and watch the magic, and facilitate a few things,” she said.
Franks had four students involved in Unified Robotics. Each of those students were paired with two of Blackman’s.
One of those students, A05 Annex FTC team member Payton Bunch, said that, after learning about the Unified Robotics program, she thought the program sounded like “an amazing opportunity.” Her role has been that of team manager, acting as a liaison between teachers and her peers. She also is in charge of scheduling and organization, with help from teammates, Franks and Blackman.
“Unified Robotics meets once a week for around 40 minutes,” she said. “During this time, we are improving our robots and programming. We split into individual teams and concentrate on problem solving and having fun. We make different attachments for our robots and oftentimes, we run scrimmages and smooth out rough patches in our programs.”
The Unified Robotics students participate in a “Sumo Bots” competition, which, Bunch explains, “takes place on a white, circular table with a black, two-inch ring around the diameter, that is about two feet off of the ground. The object of these games is to knock the (other person’s robot) off.”
For Franks, seeing her differently abled students joking and conversing with their peers and succeeding at competitions has been “beautiful.”
“Listening to them at my desk, just how normal the joking and conversation is … my students can’t provide experience for each other,” Franks said. “We need typically developing people to help with that.”
At the FTC Super Qualifier competition held at HRVHS on Feb. 8, she “almost broke down in tears” because “the expressions on my kids’ faces — I’ve never seen that before.”
Bunch said that she has also learned a lot from the experience.
“I feel as though I have become more education about differently abled students,” she said. “I’ve also become more aware of how much of an impact we have on each other. To me, the most impactful moment was after our first competition and seeing pride and accomplishment on my peers’ faces. I am so proud to be a part of something that brings new experiences to people who didn’t previously have access to them.”
Ben Garofalo, who also participates in HRVHS robotics and worked as a volunteer for the Unified Robotics program, said that, at first, he was unsure of what the program might look like.
“When the program first started, I was really unsure how it would work and how well it would go,” he said. “But as the season progressed, I started to really enjoy our weekly Unified Robotics meetings.
“I think it’s so wonderful that we started this program here to give these students the opportunity to try something like this,” he said. “Now, I look forward to every meeting and the competitions we set up are super fun.”
He said that, too he has made friends with the Unified Robotics program participants — something he didn’t expect. And for Franks, that’s another benefit of the program.
“I want to see our community be more and more inclusive,” she said, and the HRVHS robotics students as an example of what is possible. “(Jeff) asked his students, ‘Do you want to be more inclusive?’ and they said, ‘Yeah, we do.’ I stood in the hallway and cried the day he told me that.”
About Unified Sports
Unified Sports, of which Unified Robotics is a part, is a program of Special Olympics and is funded through the U.S. Office of Special Education and the U.S. Department of Education. The goal is to use Special Olympics “as a way to build inclusion and tolerance in schools,” said Naomi Grimsley, a parent and Unified volunteer who brought the idea forward to then-Athletic Director Tom Ames a couple of years ago.
“I first heard about Unified Sports through a friend and PE teacher in Walla Walla,” Grimsley said. “Perhaps because I have a child with special needs, she was sharing with me about her excitement over their Unified Program … Over the next year, I chatted here and there with other community people who showed excitement and support for a program like this … Trent Kroll (current athletic director) was excited to pick up the torch when he took Tom’s position, and he’s been very supportive.”
Grimsley is working on three aspects of the Unified program that would make HRVHS a Unified Champion School: Inclusive sports, inclusive youth leadership and whole school engagement.
“Another goal this year is for Unified to become more involved in the elementary schools and eventually becoming a Unified Champion School District,” she said.
Franks said that she needs community members who “are willing to risk a little bit” to expand the program to include more students.
“There’s tons of room to help — be a coach, be part of setting up these activities,” she said.
Of course, with the coronavirus pandemic that has now closed schools until at least April 28, the rest of this year is up in the air.
Planning, however, is happening for the 2020-21 school year. For more information, contact Grimsley at Naomi.firstname.lastname@example.org.