Building bridges by building robots

Special needs student connects with cousin through Unified Robotics
By Nicholas Johnson | Apr 26, 2017
Courtesy of: Noelle Foster Cousins Gabi Stansberry, right, and Madeleine Schwitters sit with their robot at Madeleine’s home after building it together. The two collaborated on every part of the robot’s design, including the decision to cover it in cat stickers for the competition.

As a student with special needs, Mariner High School freshman Gabi Stansberry has struggled with many things that most girls her age take for granted.

Finding friends with common interests, having opportunities to try new things and being included in a society that doesn’t understand her uniqueness have been constant challenges.

“She often gets left out of things,” Gabi’s father Mike Stansberry said. “Often times, she wants to be a part of things, but isn’t invited. Nobody knows how to interact with her, so it’s just easier to avoid it.”

When Mike and Jami Stansberry moved themselves and their five children back to Western Washington in July 2016 after having spent the past 10 years living in Oregon, Gabi was excited at the chance to reconnect with her extended family, especially her cousin Madeleine Schwitters, who is a junior at King’s Schools in Shoreline.

Madeleine is a member of the CyberKnights, a FIRST Washington Robotics Team from King’s Schools. In 2015, one of her teammates started Unified Robotics, a program pairing special needs students with members of the robotics team, as a way to connect with her sister who had been diagnosed with Autism.

That year, the program had a pilot season in partnership with Roosevelt High School. After that, Special Olympics Washington got involved, bringing the fledgling program under its umbrella of unified sports.

Madeleine immediately thought of Gabi and how much fun it would be for the two of them to build and program a robot together. Up until then, Madeleine didn’t know how to connect with Gabi and was even a bit scared to try because she didn’t know how to navigate Gabi’s disabilities.

“Before doing unified robotics with her, I struggled to connect with her,” Madeleine said. “Part of it is my held back personality, but part of it is also my being nervous about not knowing how to deal with her special needs in the right way.”

When Madeleine asked Gabi if she wanted to form a robotics team together, Gabi quickly agreed. At the time, she probably didn’t know exactly what she was agreeing to but she knew it meant she got to spend time with her cousin.

The two cousins formed a team, which requires a coach, mentor, LEGO EV3 kit for building the robot, and a computer for programming it. There’s also the expense of team uniforms and a practice field.

Determined to make it happen without the support of a school or organization, Madeleine used her Christmas money to buy the LEGO kit. She also purchased robot-themed dresses and leggings for them to wear as a uniform. They became known as the Metallic Cousins and registered as a team.

Over six weeks, Gabi and Madeleine spent time together building a battle-bot style robot out of LEGOS with the goal that it would be able to push another robot out of a 3-foot ring. It proved to be difficult at times, Madeleine said, as she learned how to better communicate with Gabi.

“When it comes to communicating with Gabi, I learned I needed to be clear and pay attention to what she was trying to tell me,” Madeleine said. “When we built our robot, I tried to leave every decision up to her. I said, ‘we’re going to build this robot how you want it to be.’”

The joy on Gabi’s face when their robot came alive the first time was worth every moment, Madeleine said.

“We’ve seen firsthand just how much joy and excitement preparing for this competition brought to her,” Stansberry said, noting that he often finds himself speaking for Gabi. “Even though she can’t say it, we see the results. Not only has this given her something to be a part of and be excited about, she gets to do it with her cousin.”

The season culminated with the cousins competing against 31 other teams from 12 participating schools in front of more than 3,000 spectators at the Special Olympics Unified Robotics World Championship at the Pacific Science Center in December 2016.

“As the competition grew closer, Gabi became more and more excited,” Gabi’s mother Jami Stansberry said. “The first thing she would ask me every morning was if today was the day to do robots. She even came out of her room ready for school in her robot dress more than once.”

When the day finally arrived, Gabi and Madeleine competed in the championship event alongside 32 teams of 150 students from 12 participating schools in the state. They took second place in their division and won the Dazzling Design Award.

“The robot was unique compared to the others and really stood out among the others,” Madeleine said, adding that it was also covered in cat stickers. “When we were building it, we probably spent more time playing with our cats than actually building the robot. We both love our cats.”

With Special Olympics Unified Robotics, Gabi was given the same opportunity as every other student to try new things and experience the joy of designing, building and programming a robot.

“When I first asked Gabi to form a robotics team with me, I thought it would be nice to teach her about robotics,” Madeleine said. “What I didn’t realize was how much Gabi would teach me. I learned about the gap that exists in STEM education and how students with special needs have been excluded from this exciting field.

“I learned that they have a lot to contribute and we must find ways to provide an inclusive environment for all people, regardless of their circumstances. I also learned that I have a really cool cousin who is fun to hang out with and who also loves cats and robots as much as I do.”

The cousins are already planning to participate in Special Olympics Unified Robotics next year and say they can’t wait to start shopping for the perfect matching outfit.

Madeleine’s mom, Sarah Schwitters, said the program is hoping to get a STEM equity grant of $25,000 that would help expand the program to more schools.

“If we can get that grant, we’ll be able to get this program started in so many other schools,” she said, noting that the money would allow for the purchase of more kits and laptops.

Punkie Doyle, a special education teacher at Mariner High School and the Snohomish/Island area director for Special Olympics Washington, said she’s hopeful that Mariner’s FIRST Robotics team will be able to participate in the coming years, as well.

“I’m looking to see what we can do to expand that in our area,” she said. “This is definitely something I’m interested in learning more about.”

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