Students with disabilities in India who have a physical impairment are five times more likely to be out of school than students without disabilities, according to a study done for UNESCO. Unfortunately, as noted in this study, many of these students throughout India are also strongly discouraged from studying Mathematics and Science at school. The students and mentors of Bishop’s School Robotics Club, Team 18025 “BSRC Mad About Robots” from Pune, India recently formed a new FIRST® Tech Challenge team for students who are visually impaired, giving them an opportunity to learn STEM and robotics for the first time. They began by enrolling students from Niwant Blind School in Pune, India; and worked tirelessly alongside them for three months to successfully build a robot to compete at the FIRST Tech Challenge India National Championship during the 2019 season.
Their journey began in 2019 when Team 18025 visited Niwant Blind School for outreach as part of the FIRST Tech Challenge SKYSTONE season. They were deeply moved when they saw how students who are blind had to modify their approach to accomplish everyday tasks, simple things that others, including themselves, often take for granted.
When the “BSRC Mad About Robots” team demonstrated their robot, the students of Niwant Blind School were thrilled as they had never had the opportunity to interact with a robot up close. Seeing that excitement during their visit inspired the “BSRC Mad About Robots” team to start a new FIRST Tech Challenge Team at Niwant Blind School.
Nine students were enrolled on the new team, and they quickly (and enthusiastically) began learning from and alongside their peers. They started learning concepts such as angles between lines, rotational speed versus linear speed, fundamentals of motors, the science behind sensors, how electronics work, and perhaps most important of all – programming. The “BRSC Mad About Robots” team designed a special curriculum for the students of Niwant Blind School by handpicking topics that would expedite their learning about robotics so they could get started on building the robot.
Students who are visually impaired utilize touch and feel to understand objects and how to use them. The veteran team found it challenging to explain concepts like what an ‘angle’ is to students who are visually impaired, and knew they had to develop a new way to teach these topics to their peers. They created a series of teaching aids that were built using robot parts or 3D printed. These aids enabled the students from Niwant Blind School to properly identify, assemble and use robot parts.
In addition to the physical teaching aids, Team “BSRC Mad About Robots” built a mobile app to help students identify robot parts with ease. Robot kits contain parts neatly organized into packets with part identification labels on them, but students who are blind cannot read them. They identify parts by touching and feeling them. Using the app, blind students can scan the barcodes on these packets and the app speaks out the names of those parts along with information on how to use them. This learning ultimately allows them to build and use a robot. And the team did build a robot and competed at the FIRST Tech Challenge India National Championship where they placed eighth along with receiving the Pathbreaking Journey Judge’s Award.
Before being introduced to FIRST®, the students from Niwant Blind School may not have known that activities or careers in STEM were possible for them. Out of the nine team members from Niwant Blind School, seven are continuing their studies in STEM, including three students who are pursuing undergraduate degrees in Computer Science.
These two inspiring FIRST Tech Challenge teams hope to share all of their teaching material, tools and aids with the world someday so that students with disabilities can join the world of robotics, STEM and FIRST. Hear directly from students on Team “BSRC Niwant” about their experiences here.