GSN NEWS STAFF

The impact of a unique robotics program that Williams Field High School pioneered in Arizona last year is catching on.

Unified Robotics – which brings typical and special students working together on projects as a competitive extracurricular activity – has now been established at Higley High School as well.

“It’s all about inclusion,” said Higley engineering teacher Jason Sixkiller. “It’s getting together kids who normally would not be in the same classroom or at the same lunch table.”

Williams Field launched the first full Unified Robotics team in Arizona last school year. Unified Robotics was developed through a partnership between Special Olympics Arizona and STAX3D.

STAX3D is a local technology company that works with local area schools to help provide STEM (science, technology, education and math) learning opportunities, district spokeswoman Michelle Reese said.

“Tournament-style competitions will be organized for groups to compete in, and students will have coach instruction and teamwork-building exercises in order to prepare,” she explained.

Sixkiller said the program is like any other sport in that students work hard and keep in mind the need for practice.

“It is going to be a commitment,” Sixkiller said. “Not just for myself, but for the kids too.”

Alise Kraus, Williams Field’s engineering teacher, said she’s recruiting students, noting, “I believe everybody has attributes to contribute. I believe in challenging everybody to use their best skills possible.”

Many high school robotics teams around the state and the nation prepare for state, regional and national tournaments. Students often spend hours after school and on weekends working on their part of a robot, gradually over time coming together as a team to develop a robot that meets the competitions’ standards.

Kraus said she learned a lot from running Williams Field’s team last year and plans to have students start learning how to program earlier with other teams.

Laura Duncan, senior director of support programs at Special Olympics Arizona, said the goal of the robotics program is to create opportunity for inclusion.

“Special Olympics Arizona is extremely excited to be partnering with STAX3D to use robotics as a catalyst for promoting social inclusion and driving change in STEM education.

“The goal of Unified Robotics is simple – to provide an opportunity where students of all abilities can pursue their passion in STEM and excel in an arena amongst their peers. We look forward to expanding Unified Robotics on high school campuses statewide through a continued partnership with STAX3D.”

As Special Olympics Arizona’s official partner for Unified Robotics, STAX3D helped create and organize Williams Field’s program last year, and will join again this year as more teams, such as Higley High, join.

Shawn Hardina, executive vice president of strategic partnerships for STAX3D, taught science and robotics for 26 years.

“I know the impact a quality robotics program can have on changing kids’ lives and on workforce development,” he said.

STAX3D works with businesses, as well as educators, to take conventional ways of working and teaching and blending emerging technologies into the mix.

“There’s a pre-kindergarten through business application for all of this and that’s what we focus on as a company,” he said.

This year, the organizers are fine-tuning the program to create opportunities for the Unified Robotics team to participate in both inclusive competitions and unified competitions as students develop their skills, according to Hardina.

Nikki Fyffe, lead teacher for special education at Williams Field, said the program has helped her students make friends.

“What my students gained from this experience is that they can do it. They can be involved and be a part of something. That they have the same abilities as their peers and that they were treated the same, fair,” said Fyffe, adding:

“They learned something that can translate into, ‘Hey, I can do that.’”

She said the program has really helped the students develop their problem-solving skills and work as a team.

“They think through, ‘Oh, it didn’t work perfectly this time, let me change a part,’” Fyffe said. “That’s what the robotics kids did. They helped them problem solve through that.”

Fernanda Villafana Benitez, a student leader in the robotics club at Williams Field, said the club “wants to share their passion for robotics with those that are interested,” Reese said.

As Villafana Benitez explained: “We want to share this with students who had never experienced robotics and give them a chance to do robotics and engineering.”