Seattle’s Pacific Science Center is busy on your average weekend, but this past Saturday it was bursting. Between the life-sized bug exhibit and the dome of the Boeing IMAX theater, a unique competition was taking place.
Students paced between swarms of supporters and the edges of four square arenas that were taped onto the carpet. They tuned out the sounds of the crowd to focus on the plastic-on-plastic crash of their robots — battling sumo-style to push competitors out of the ring.
This was the scene at the first ever Unified Robotics Championship. The contest had all the trappings of a high school robotics club — chattering students, fiercely decorated bots and plenty of friendly competition.
But this weekend’s championship was made unique by its participants.
In Unified Robotics, athletes with intellectual disabilities team up with partners from the mainstream student body to build and battle their bots.
“The teams are basically 50/50, and the idea is not only to provide opportunities for the student with special needs, but to break down barriers and help develop more of an inclusive mindset on everybody’s part,” said Mikel Thompson, a computer science teacher and robotics coach at Kings High School who helped start the program.
The inspiration for Unified Robotics began two years ago, with sisters Delaney and Kendall Foster, seniors at Kings and Roosevelt High school, respectively. Kendall, who has autism, was the number one fan of Kings’ robotics team, but her family wasn’t able to find a team for her to participate in.
Delaney decided she would start a program for people like her sister, modeled on Special Olympics Unified Sports teams that already exist at many high schools. Unified Sports works with schools to set up teams that are half students with intellectual disabilities and half students from the mainstream student body, as a way to encourage more contact between the two groups of students.