FIRST Provides Students with Disabilities Opportunities to Compete

When Antonio Haddon started participating in (For Inspiration & Recognition of Science & Technology) FIRST Robotics, he never knew he would develop such a passion for learning.

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Photo: Heather Noel / http://www.dallasinnovates.com

“What I like most about robotics is building the robot, driving the robot and working together as a team while we cheer each other on.”

Haddon, a senior at Sunset High School in Dallas drives robots as a part of team RoboFlash 6751, the first robotics team to be comprised of students with disabilities. The students competed at the Dallas Regional FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC) on March 8-11 in Irving and won one of their matches.

In 2016, the Texas Workforce Commission (TWC) supported 270 FIRST teams across the state through a grant totaling $1 million to the FIRST in Texas Foundation, inspiring nearly 4,200 students to be leaders in science and technology by engaging them in exciting, mentor-based programs that promote innovation, build skills for science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) careers, and foster well-rounded life skills.

Working in teams to solve complex problems and create a working robot, these competitions equip students with STEM applied learning opportunities.

“I felt that I gained a lot of respect from other teams,” said Haddon. “I proved to myself that I can drive in a robotics competition despite my disabilities.”

TWC supports youth education programs that prepare students for high-demand careers through its partnership with after-school robotics programs. Support for hands-on learning activities in robotics continues to grow as shown by the University Interscholastic League’s decision to officially sanction statewide robotics competitions.

“Students participating in the FIRST in Texas Robotics Competition at the University Interscholastic League (UIL) State Championship in Austin and at the International competition in Houston showcased their ingenuity, teamwork and prowess in STEM skills,” said TWC Chairman Andres Alcantar. “Texas employees and teachers who mentor these students are inspiring future Texas innovators by helping them develop and apply their programming, technical, engineering and other skills needed to succeed in the dynamic Texas economy. TWC is proud to support this successful and inspiring STEM strategy.”

FIRST was founded in 1989 to inspire young people’s interest and participation in science and technology. The programs encompass age-appropriate, hands-on activities for K-12 students. “As the demand for qualified STEM professionals continues to grow for Texas employers, programs like FIRST Robotics give students a strong start,” said TWC Commissioner Representing Employers Ruth R. Hughs. “Through the FIRST grants, we are proud to lay the groundwork by providing opportunities for 4,190 students throughout Texas to gain new skills and real-world experiences.”

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Photo: Heather Noel / http://www.dallasinnovates.com

FIRST provides opportunities for all ages. Students ages six to 10 start with FIRST LEGO Leagues Jr., which introduces STEM concepts through LEGO elements. Students in 4th-8th grades can start FIRST LEGO League teams and are challenged to develop solutions to real world problems all while building and programming a robot.

High school teams compete in the FIRST Tech Challenge (FTC) and FRC. FTC is considered the junior varsity level competition, where teams of up to 10 students receive a robot kit and are challenged to design, build and program their robots to compete against other teams.

FRC is considered the “ultimate sport for the mind.” It involves teams comprised of at least 25 students and adult mentors who must raise funds, design a team “brand” and build a robot to perform tasks based on real-world engineering challenges. Each season culminates with top teams competing at the FIRST Championship.

The RoboFlash 6751 team introduced students with intellectual disabilities such as autism, learning disabilities and Down syndrome to the competition and to apply their skills on the team. This special robotics program has helped bring awareness to providing learning opportunities for all students including individuals with disabilities and presents opportunities for companies to hire students as future engineers and computer programmers.

“TWC is dedicated to supporting FIRST Robotics as the positive impact this program has on Texas students continues to grow in innovative ways,” said TWC Commissioner Representing Labor Julian Alvarez. “The labor force of Texas must continue to innovate and programs like FIRST provide the training and skills our students need to compete.”

The results of a Brandeis University evaluation survey indicated that FIRST programs encourage participants to consider STEM-related careers. FIRST participants are two times as likely to major in science or engineering. Over 75 percent of FIRST alumni enter in-demand STEM fields as a student or professional after they graduate high school.