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Unified Robotics offers inclusion and competition

This year, both Higley and Williams Field High School will offer Unified Robotics. The program brings together typical students with peers who have unique learning styles for an extracurricular activity that engages all in the competitive sport of robotics.

Williams Field High School 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, a local technology company that works with local area schools to help provide STEM (science, technology, education and math) learning opportunities.

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

Tournament-styled competitions will be organized for groups to compete in, and students will have coach instruction and teamwork-building exercises in order to prepare.

Sixkiller said that with any sport, it is important that individual students work hard to be successful and keep in mind that it takes practice and time.

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

Alise Kraus, Williams Field High School’s engineering teacher, said that she is actively seeking all students that are interested.

“I believe everybody has attributes to contribute,” Kraus said. “I believe in challenging everybody to use their best skills possible.”

Kraus said that 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,” Duncan said.

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

Shawn Hardina, executive vice president of strategic partnerships for STAX3D, previously came from education – teaching 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 High School, 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. “They learned something that can translate into, ‘Hey, I can do that.’”

She said that 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 is a student leader in the robotics club at Williams Field and said the club wants to share their passion for robotics with those that are interested.

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