'More than the robot': Robotics team recognized for inclusion efforts
Sunday, July 7, 2019
The assignment seemed like mission impossible: Create a robot that could go to an unfamiliar environment and achieve its goal amid uncertain elements. But it turned out that building a robot was just a small step. The giant leap was building a team.
Boneyard Robotics managed to do both, going where no team from North Carolina has gone before in FIRST Robotics Competition. Instead of receiving accolades for its robotics work on the Destination Deep Space challenge, the group has been honored for the impact it is having on Earth.
Boneyard was recognized this spring among hundreds of competitors at the FIRST Robotics world championship in Houston. The Winterville-based team was one of three finalists for the Chairman’s Award, the competition’s most prestigious honor, for its efforts to open the team to a broader spectrum of participants, primarily to people with autism.
“So many kids with autism can benefit so much from things like robotics,” head coach Paula Main said. “You’re giving them an automatic group of friends, an automatic group of people with shared interests.”
About 20 percent of Boneyard’s 37-member team has autism. In total, nearly half the team has a diagnosis such as autism spectrum disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder or generalized anxiety disorder.
“We don’t discriminate We don’t make fun of people. We’re incredibly accepting,” team member Ethan Hawley said. “Anybody’s welcome in the Boneyard.”
The team, which includes teens from eight area public and private schools, along with home-schooled students, did not have the neurodiversity movement in mind when it grew out of the Pitt Pirates robotics team five years ago. Boneyard, like robotics teams across the globe, was looking to make a name for itself in a science and technology competition that has been called “the ultimate sport for the mind.” It just turned out that some of the biggest fans of that sport are people with autism.
“For almost all of our kids with autism, robotics is the only thing that gets them out of their house other than school,” Main said. “It’s the only thing that gets them involved, gets them out from under their parents and gets them interacting.”
Main is a certified autism specialist, but she speaks from personal experience. Her son, Jadon, who has autism, has been involved with robotics for four years.
“In his first year, he wouldn’t talk to anybody, wouldn’t get involved, kind of stood back, would be on his phone,” Main said. “The coaches and the other mentors told me they would ask him to do something and he would do it better than anybody else they had asked … and then he would go right back to the corner and put the phone back up.”
But as time went on, Jadon began to talk more with his teammates about their shared interest and to advance into leadership roles.
“Neurodiversity brings a new type of thinking onto the team,” said member Sasha Surkin, who joined the team two years ago to work alongside sisters Jenevieve and Julianna. “If everybody thought the same way, we wouldn’t innovate and make the progress we have made over our past five years.”
Main, who became a volunteer after her son’s first year with the team, began inviting other students with autism to join as well. She wanted them to have some of the same positive experiences that robotics had given her son.
But while several students with autism showed an interest in Boneyard, being selected for the team presented a challenge. With 200 students trying out for fewer than 40 positions, competition could be tough.
To be selected for Boneyard, students were required to volunteer to promote the robotics team at community events.
“Some of those environments were not very sensory friendly,” Julianna Surkin said, explaining that crowds and noise of festivals and events can be difficult for people with autism. “Some students with different sensory capabilities did not go to those events as often, and, as such, they had lower tallying points to qualify to be on the team.
“We had a process that was equal, but we realized it needed to be equitable,” she said. “That was really what we recognized as the first step of transforming (Boneyard).”
Another step was educating team members, mentors and coaches to help them better understand students with autism. With input from Main, along with information from the Autism Society and Autism Speaks, Boneyard members put together some guidelines for working with students who have autism. The list includes suggestions such as not making judgments based on lack of eye contact or misinterpreting straightforward comments as rude.
Those guidelines became part of a 12-page autism recruitment handbook designed to help other robotics teams work toward inclusion for people with autism. At the recent international competition, teams from Australia and Canada approached Boneyard for advice on how to be more inclusive of students with autism.
The handbook has been shared with teams in all 50 states and 17 countries and has been translated into French, Spanish and Mandarin. Jenevieve recently fielded a request from an organization in Tanzania.
“It’s very easy to replicate in the workplace,” she said. “We’re sort of planting seeds.”
Like the handbook, the skills that robotics team members who are on the autism spectrum receive are also designed to be useful in the workplace.
“We saw not only the technical skills that a robotics team could give students with neurodiverse capabilities,” Julianna said, “but also the soft skills, self-confidence, communication, the ability to take risks, to step out of their comfort zone and grow as people.”
Jadon credits his experience with Boneyard with helping him to become more comfortable communicating with others. By his third season, he had advanced to become engineering team captain.
“This was my first leadership role with the team and would be my first experience as a leader,” he said. “... The program has very much helped me grow.”
He later put his knowledge of robotics to the test by volunteering to be his team’s representative for alliance selections.
“This meant I had to speak in front of hundreds of people, which, once again, would have been out of the question two years prior,” Jadon said.
He went on to become drive team captain, in spite of the fact that noise and action of the competition can difficult with people with autism and other sensory disorders.
Recognizing that the competition atmosphere can be a challenge for team members with autism, Boneyard instituted a quiet space at robotics competitions. The team persuaded competition organizers to set aside rooms and to allow Boneyard to provide soft lighting, comfortable seating and a choices of activities designed to give students a break from the sights and sounds of competition. At half a dozen robotics events this season, Boneyard’s quiet rooms had more than 500 visits.
In the off season, Boneyard members are working to develop POP (piece of the puzzle) Alliance, a partnership and website to provide resources to other robotics teams that want to recruit and retain students with autism.
This may seem like a lot of extra work for a team that’s already tasked with building a robot, but mentor Kelley Black said that is by design.
“A big part of FIRST is innovation,” she said. “Students initially think it’s one thing: You come in and build a robot. (But) they learn branding, the importance of data. They learn programming and design. They understand putting together a presentation and marketing materials. A lot of people don’t expect that from FIRST. They think it’s the one thing.”
“It’s not just the robot. It’s always more than the robot,” she said. “The robot’s the dangling carrot; it gets them there. But then you can do some pretty remarkable things once you get them in there. We can change the world a little bit at a time through it.”