THE BLOG
07/31/2014 03:43 pm ET Updated Sep 30, 2014

Geared Up For Robotics

In 2010, my robotics team was competing in the World Competition for the FIRST LEGO League. As we waited for the Egyptian team to take the stage during the awards ceremony, a woman asked us to raise our hands in the air and do a motion similar to jazz hands, instead of clapping. We prepared to hear another speech. Instead, we witnessed this all deaf team give an emotional thank you to their mentor. Interpreted for us all to hear, they said something unforgettable: "You made us feel like human beings." This team of deaf girls -- who also happened to be orphans -- felt they had been treated as if they were incapable their whole lives and that really opened my eyes. I hadn't realized that anyone could feel inhuman, especially a child. There was no reason any child should feel that way, and no reason any child could not participate in robotics. This team inspired me to make robotics accessible to students with differing abilities.

My Gold Award project was a combination of the two big things in my life: robotics and Girl Scouts. I've spent five years participating in competitive robotics, and over the span of seven years have mentored over 40 robotics teams.I have been in Girl Scouts for 13 years; in those years I've experienced four troops, as well as countless friends and badges. I built my way up to earning the Gold Award, and was recently honored to be chosen as a National Young Woman of Distinction (NYWOD).

The Girl Scout Gold Award is the highest award a Girl Scout may earn. The leadership and organizational skills, sense of community, and commitment that come from "going for the Gold" set the foundation for a lifetime of active citizenship. This prestigious award challenges girls to change the world.

National Young Women of Distinction (NYWOD) is the designation, and special honor, conferred by Girl Scouts of the USA (GSUSA) on ten Girl Scout Gold Award recipients whose final projects demonstrated extraordinary leadership, had a measurable and sustainable impact, and addressed a local challenge that related to a national and/or global issue. -GSUSA

For my Gold Award, I created Geared Up, an after-school robotics program that engages children with physical disabilities in robotics. My project addressed two issues: the lack of enthusiasm kids have for science, engineering and math, and the absence of hands-on STEM related after-school programs currently available to those with physical disabilities. I hope to increase the accessibility of robotics to everyone, dispel preconceived notions some people have of those with physical disabilities, and increase the self-confidence level of those who participate.

The program uses existing, commercially available parts that can be adapted to accommodate each unique situation. To make the project more accessible to everyone, I created an instructor's manual so that anyone can become an instructor. I also created a website, Facebook page, and email for the program in hopes of expanding the reach. The program is broken up into eight steps, ranging from familiarizing students with Legos to learning the basics of coding, building a robot, and completing missions, while promoting skills like advanced problem solving and teamwork. To put it simply: "It's geared for everyone."

I didn't know what to expect when I first started Geared Up at Albuquerque Sign Language Academy (ASLA). I'd seen deaf children compete once before, when I watched the Egyptian orphans. However, the students I worked with were fortunate; they came from loving families and had the high self- confidence levels of young children. The majority of the kids I work with are under 12 years old and can hear to some degree. Being so young, they are not inhibited by how society dictates the status quo and their level of capability; to them, everything is new and they are ready to learn. I get to work with them before they ever think to doubt themselves, differently-abled or not, and that is the most delightful thing I could ask for.

Working with the middle school levels is different. There's doubt in every move, especially with girls. One girl had never worked with Legos before and kept saying how she "couldn't do it" and "it's too hard, can you help me?" I did help, by having her take the lead while encouraging her and asking guided questions. It may not have been easy, but she went from never having touched a Lego to building a complex model all by herself and finally, working with a team to build the robot. I watched as her self- confidence grew as rapidly and sturdily, just like the robot she built.

Outside of the challenges that robotics present, there were several social obstacles, as well. ASLA is open to any child who is or has a family member who is deaf, as they don't want to isolate the children. Still, towards the beginning of the program, it seemed as if all of the hearing kids were sticking together and the non-hearing kids were mainly staying to themselves. But throughout their time together learning about robotics, this self-separation disappeared, and I was surprised by how well the children worked together. They were not "hearing kids" and "non-hearing kids." They were just kids working together towards a common goal: creating a robot.

The most rewarding part of my project was and still is the children. Their relentless passion for the program often rivals my own. Kids come in only having seen robots on TV and leave having built and programmed their own. The first time one of the smallest boys moved the robot without touching it -- through programming -- he beamed up at me with the most endearing smile. His face lit up with such excitement -- it was contagious. I matched his smile and signed, "Good Job."

Although the initial project may be over, I am continually working on improving my project and its reach. I'm currently exploring a request for a version of the program that is geared towards schools with no funding. In addition, I was recently hired by a local organization as an afterschool program robotics instructor, so that I will continue spreading this program to new schools and helping instruct.

The project may look complete now, but it was not all smooth sailing. My biggest obstacle was time, it seemed like every email was a small roadblock because of response times and deadlines pressing closer. On the other hand, I became comfortable with phone calls versus emails, and brainstormed as many problems and solutions as I could when waiting for responses. For the most part, I was well prepared, but there were situations and things that I didn't anticipate running into, like staff and supply shortages and a surplus of paperwork. But, it worked out.

My advice for those going for their Gold Award -- or interested in making the world a better place -- is to dream big and start early. You'll run into a lot of roadblocks, but don't let those stop you. Be flexible and always have another option, for everything. You'll eventually find what is geared perfectly towards you.

Haley Hanson is a college sophomore working on her degree in Biology with a concentration in Marine Biology. For more details visit www.GearedUpForRobotics.weebly.com. In October, Haley will receive the NYWOD recognition along with 9 other Girl Scouts from across the country at the GSUSA National Convention.

Subscribe to Must Reads.
The internet's best stories, and interviews with their authors.