Besides participating in robotics competitions, team Robowiz also did community outreach via the START (Spreading Technology And Robotics Together) program. It partnered with the Autism Society of Northern Virginia (ASNV) to encourage children with autism to develop an interest in robotics.
The nonprofit, grassroots organization, is based in Merrifield and serves Northern Virginia. According to ASNV Executive Director Sarah Peterson, it “builds community for individuals and families affected by autism through education, advocacy and support.”
Jugnu Agrawal is a special-education professor at GMU and was formerly on ASNV’s board of directors. Her daughter Radhika is on the team and asked Peterson about doing a service project with ASNV.
So the Robowiz members put on a robotics-education program for eight autistic children in grades four through eight. They held a series of sessions for four weeks in November and December 2014 to teach the children the basics of robotics design and programming.
“We had a really positive response from all the participants,” said Peterson. “Afterward, one boy – who hardly ever initiates conversations – was asking questions and proudly discussing what he’d learned. And one girl’s mom told me that her daughter – whose classmates had told her that girls don’t like math and science – was happy to attend the sessions. She said they validated her daughter’s own interest in those subjects and gave her girl role models.”
Peterson, too, was pleased. “I was amazed by the generosity displayed by these robotics students and their sensitivity to the needs of the participants,” she said. “They demonstrated a tremendous amount of maturity, and it made me feel hopeful for the future.”
The effort was meaningful to the team, as well. “I enjoyed the community outreach we did because we made a real impact,” said team member Shomik Ghose.
Agreeing, teammate Josal Patel said, “The community outreach was a really great experience. I learned that it’s a lot tougher to explain something you know to someone else. But it felt really good and I felt privileged to do something like this.”