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New Robotics Academy Preps Youth with Disabilities for Jobs in Technology

Jaquon Evans takes part in a robotics academy for youth with disabilities. The week long training is part of a larger state initiative, Career Pathways for Individuals with Disabilities, funded by a $4 million grant from the US Department of Education. (Photo: Catherine Komp)

Across the country, people with disabilities face barriers to employment. In Virginia, the Career Pathways for Individuals with Disabilities program offers training in information technology and modern manufacturing. Part of the initiative includes a robotics academy for young people with disabilities. WCVE’s Catherine Komp has more for Learning Curve.


It’s day four of the robotics academy and 18-year-old Christopher Freeman is just about done programming his creation, named Project Nova.

Christopher Freeman: Mostly it’s going to be a comedian (laughs), the first robotic comedian.

Freeman’s makes a few adjustments to the code, working out some kinks.

Freeman: He does get messed up sometimes, but sometimes he’s good.

Freeman joined about 25 high school students and recent grads, taking part a week-long robotics academy. Ray Hopkins is the Commissioner for the Department for the Blind and Vision Impaired (DBVI).

Ray Hopkins: What we have is a group of young adults who are consumers of services from the Virginia Department for the Blind and vision-impaired and the Department for Aging and Rehabilitative Services who are here learning how to first build then program doing computer code and figuring out the math and physics to put together robots, make them go, make them talk, move how they want and hopefully learning some skills that they can transfer into job related areas be they the computer science, information technology or advanced manufacturing.

Some students have vision and hearing impairments, others have restricted mobility. So they’re using different “assistive technologies” as they build and program their robots, like voice recognition and screen enlargement software. Hopkins says each year there are new programs and apps to support people with disabilities.

Hopkins: In serving people who have significant vision impairments, we consider technology to be the great equalizer because with the the adaptations and advancements in technology people are now able to perform jobs and tasks that a generation ago would have been out of reach.

The robotics academy is taught by the National Integrated Cyber Education and Resource Center, part of the Louisiana-based Cyber Innovation Center. Dr. Charles Gardner is Director of Curriculum.

Charles Gardner: We start with the basics, with getting them interested in what the code is and how the first few lines of text flow. We introduce variables and some basic programming blocks and then we slowly add other components. So this is 3 ½ days, they now have multiple systems operating together on a single platform incorporating audible feedback, incorporating tactile inputs, incorporating accelerometers that sense gravity, motion, we got mechanical feedback. So we have a variety of inputs and outputs that have been the culmination of 3 ½ days of hardcore coding.

Most students didn’t have any coding experience at the beginning says Gardner, but they got hooked quickly.

Gardner:  They all kind of had an idea what they were getting into, they were interested in technology, in coding, in the internet. So we just kind of took that interest, fueled it with these devices and the first task was just putting it together so there became a sense of ownership as they built these bots from scratch… [at the end] they get to take them home.

Gardner says his team generally works with K-12 teachers. For this academy, they had to figure out how it would work for people with a range of disabilities.

Gardner: So what we did was, we’re typically Powerpoints and visual, we retooled it and made it very audible. So it's not even lecture, it's talking about the components, it’s describing what you would feel when you picked up these components. For low vision and hard of hearing, to put ourselves in their seats, what would the experience be building a bot for the first time if I had never seen it, if I had never held a screwdriver.

Students go back and forth, plugging in code on laptops then moving their bots to the floor to test them. One programmed his robot to speak in Spanish. Jaquon Evans came into the camp with no prior experience coding or with robotics.

Jaquon Evans: I thought it was going to be hard, and I didn’t think I was going to be able to keep up.

A few days later, he’s nearly finished programming his bot.

Evans: Right now I’m trying to get it to go up a ramp and then when it detects the ramp, to come back down the ramp and go around it and then I put the ping sensor on it so now I'm trying to get it to also go up the ramp and then come back down and then when it sees another obstacle like a wall, it will go around that obstacle as well.

He tests it out. It rolls up a cardboard ramp, then back down

Evans: Another turn, back, turn.

There’s one more task: he doesn’t want it go backwards after hitting one of those obstacles.

Evans: Other than that it’s pretty good, and it started as nothing and now it’s moving on it’s own and everything, all the circuits… it’s pretty cool.

Hopkins: As an old guy, my only complaint is I don’t get to make a robot.

Commissioner Ray Hopkins with VIrginia’s Department for the Blind and Vision Impaired

Hopkins: We’re doing this to help these kids get skills and hopefully on the other side of that, since there are all these IT and manufacturing jobs, that businesses and employers will open their doors when a skilled person who happens to have a disability applies for employment with them because we think they have a lot to offer.

The national unemployment rate for people with disabilities in 2016 was about 10%. That’s twice the rate for people without disabilities. For those with jobs, the pay is often substandard. The robotics academy is part of a larger initiative called Career Pathways for Individuals with Disabilities. That got off the ground a year ago, with a more than $4 million grant from the US Department of Education. The program aims to provide about 500 people with disabilities with training and credentials for living wage jobs in modern manufacturing, logistics and IT.

Project Nova Robot: What do you call Bill Nye on a bad hair day? Bill Nye the Bad Hair Guy...

Returning to Christopher Freeman’s table, he’s made progress on his comedic robot and a routine he’s practicing for final robot rally.

Project Nova Robot: What do you think about that?

Freeman: I think it was good. What do you think?

Project Nova Robot: … that joke was so bad.

Freeman: Hey! Everyone’s a critic…

Project Nova Robot: Not me, I’m just a $20 robot.

The North Chesterfield youth also programmed a special message:

Project Nova Robot: Everyone go to 88.9 WCVE

For Learning Curve, I’m Catherine Komp, WCVE News.