Robots for everyone

Delaney Foster wanted to start a high school robotics club that could include her sister, who has an intellectual disability. Today, that club has become a Special Olympics-sponsored organization reaching students in five states around America.

Unified Robotics is a Unified Sports program bringing STEM skills to students with disabilities. Students and schools are invited to register their team for the 2018 Unified Robotics season.

In age, Kendall and Delaney Foster are only separated by a year, so they’ve been best friends all their lives. Old home videos show two little girls with heads full of blonde ringlets, so close in appearance they look more like twins than just sisters.

It was only as they aged that their differences became apparent. At a young age, Kendall was diagnosed with autism. Meanwhile, things at school were beginning to come more naturally for Delaney. She was high-achieving, popular, and captain of her FIRST Robotics team, a STEM-focused “sport of the mind” in which students build robots that compete in a series of challenges. Kendall attended the robotics matches and cheered louder than anyone else. But there was always an invisible wall between them. Delaney was always on the competition floor—and Kendall was always in the stands.

Delaney decided to figure out a way to get Kendall involved. She had a vision of bringing people together, so that awareness could be learned through experiences. Using the concept behind unified sports, which brings together people with and without intellectual disabilities to compete in sports together, as partners, she developed a plan for Unified Robotics. In Unified Robotics, teams of students (“partners” from the general education population work alongside “athletes,” or students from the special education population) use LEGO MINDSTORMS kits to build robots that compete in BattleBots-style “sumo” matches. Unified Robotics is inclusive not just because it’s a unified program, but because it provides life-altering access to STEM education (including coding and programming), helping provide access to technology and digital skills for everyone.

A family legacy

Today, things look a little different. The girls are older, and both have graduated high school. Delaney is studying abroad, and Kendall is preparing to start her first job and move out of the house. But Unified Robotics continues, now under the guidance of its new director: Delaney and Kendall’s mom, Noelle.

Noelle Foster took over as director of Unified Robotics in 2016 when Delaney graduated high school and left the state for college. In the time since, she’s grown it to reach more than 50 schools around the United States, with more requesting information about starting their own clubs daily, and in 2017, Microsoft partnered with Unified Robotics, providing technology, devices, and volunteer support.

Together, Newport High School seniors Sean and Delphine are known as Team Voltron (an 80s cartoon reference Sean’s father snuck in). They’ve been working on their robot for months. Now, all their code is written, their LEGOs are assembled, and their wires are crossed (and uncrossed). Today is the big day: the championship games; eight hours of robots wrestling in sumo-rings and hoping they’ll make it to each next round.

Meet the winners of the 2017 Special Olympics Unified Robotics championship at the Pacific Science Center: The Purple Robot Eaters, a Unified team from Auburn, Wash. After a fierce battle in the final round, the Purple Robot Eaters clinched the title—for the second year in a row!

Start your own club

Getting involved is easy, whether it’s starting a program in your own community, stepping up when a team needs a leader, volunteering time and talent, or getting involved as an athlete or mentor. It all starts with taking a small step that could make a big difference in young lives.

First, find out if there are unified sports at your school. If so, connect your athletic director to the robotics teacher and begin working together to start a team. Then, connect with your region’s Special Olympics director. If you want to start a new program, three simple steps are all you need to do:

Special Olympics

Microsoft has partnered with the Special Olympics since 2014, offering cloud-based technology to transform the way they run the games, care for the athletes, and build a more inclusive community.

And Microsoft is the proud, premier sponsor of the 2018 Special Olympics USA Games in Seattle this July. More than 4,000 athletes and coaches will compete in 14 Olympic-type team and individual sports, and volunteers (more than 10,000 of them, in fact) make the whole thing possible.