By Patty Cooke / October 21, 2016

Robotics: Spanning the learning gaps

When I attended high school eons ago, special-needs students were often on the periphery. A few were integrated into mainstream classes, and I would see them in the halls, but they never really seemed to be a part of the student body.

Things have changed since then; we are seeing more mainstreaming of differently abled students. However, there is still a common mindset that students who learn differently aren’t as capable of certain things – or at the very least, we aren’t sure where their capabilities lie, so we don’t offer them much beyond the standard curriculum.

Take robotics, for instance. When I envision a typical robotics student, I imagine a quick learner or someone with a high IQ who easily picks up on both the general mechanics and the intricacies of the wiring and coding. What I’ve learned, though, is that robotics not only speaks to kids of various talents and capabilities, it also inherently brings together students from all walks of life. Some students are great at building while others are better at wiring or coding. There really is no “typical” robotics student.

Case in point: Team 8811, a FIRST® robotics team from Sunset High School in Dallas, Texas, and the school’s newly formed Team Robo*Flash, made up entirely of special-needs students. These two teams together attended the 2016 FIRST state competition, with Team Robo*Flash doing an exhibition using TETRIX® PRIME. “Our first year we qualified for Super Regionals by winning the Inspire Award,” said former Sunset senior Ivonne Torres, “and we got there because of Robo*Flash.”

Torres came up with the idea of inviting Ms. Pauline Tatum’s special-needs students to a robotics team meeting. Not knowing what to expect, Team 8811 started with having Ms. Tatum’s students put wheels on the robots. “They were so fast,” said Torres, “we ran out of wheels.” Torres then taught the special-needs students how to make 3-D paper robots, a task they quickly took to, even though it confused Team 8811 members. That got Torres thinking about different learning styles and what else these students were capable of. “They’re really smart,” she said. “They just learn differently.”

Once both groups became comfortable with each other, Team Robo*Flash was born, and Team 8811 quickly set about challenging their peers. Despite some early hiccups, Team 8811 soon discovered that Robo*Flash students were more than up to the task of building and driving their own robots and using those robots to move objects from one point to the next. Now, not only are Robo*Flash and Team 8811 students equal peers, Ms. Tatum’s students have increased their self-esteem, are learning valuable STEM concepts that will enhance their employability after graduation, and are showing the world they’re capable, regardless of their learning styles.

Learn more about Team Robo*Flash:
PRIME-d to take on the world
Class Act: Special Needs Class Takes on World of Robotics
In north Oak Cliff, Sunset robotics students with disabilities seek a league of their own

Robo*Flash! from Uncanny Valley Films on Vimeo.


Patty Cooke

Written by Patty Cooke

Hello! I work as a communications assistant here at Pitsco, editing, writing, helping with publications, and working with other departments to help create awesome STEM materials and resources. I learned my love of storytelling from my dad, who constantly entertained me and my 11 siblings with the most fascinating, albeit fictional, stories. His tales kept us out of our mother’s hair for a while and probably saved her sanity. Our blog posts aren’t fictional, of course, but I still enjoy infusing the same amount of fun that Dad put into his stories. I hope reading these posts brings you equal enjoyment.