Editor’s Note: Sara Larkin of Vinton has organized the first team of blind and visually impaired students to compete in this weekend’s First Robotics competition at the UNI-Dome this weekend. We asked Ms. Larkin to share more about the team and its story. 

IT TAKES A VILLAGE! The Iowa Braille School will be competing in the FIRST Robotics Competition at the UNI-Dome in Cedar Falls this week March 22-25. It all started when Sara Larkin, math consultant for the school, received the Iowa STEM Scale-Up grant and Jennifer Bliss, STEM consultant for the school, received a rookie grant to help fund the startup kit, parts, and competition fees for a new team.

Danny Grimes, a student who is blind from West High School in Iowa City, wanted to start a team and became the first member. Two other students, Gabe Trappe and Eric Rush, from West High also joined the team. Additionally, five other students who are blind or visually impaired also decided to join the team. They include James Cheek from Nevada High School, Joel Murray from Thomas Jefferson High School in Council Bluffs, Cody Davis from Estherville Lincoln Central High School, Kadyn Haggard from Humboldt High School, and Gabriel Urbano from Hampton Dumont High School. Danny’s science teacher Maureen Head, Jennifer, Sara, and professors/students from the University of Iowa became the coaches and mentors for the team and the Kirkwood Regional Center at the University of Iowa provided the space for building the robot.

What is FIRST Robotics Competition, you might ask. According to their website at www.firstinspires.org it combines the excitement of sport with the rigors of science and technology. They call FIRST Robotics Competition the ultimate Sport for the Mind. High-school student participants call it “the hardest fun you’ll ever have.” Under strict rules, limited resources, and an intense six-week time limit, teams of students are challenged to raise funds, design a team “brand,” hone teamwork skills, and build and program industrial-size robots to play a difficult field game against like-minded competitors. It’s as close to real-world engineering as a student can get. Volunteer professional mentors lend their time and talents to guide each team. The theme this year was FIRST Steamworks and the students were tasked to build a robot that could deliver gears, climb ropes, etc.

Even though this particular team has had the obstacle of limited sight, their vision to build a robot and compete against other teams never wavered. In fact, they will be the only team at the competition that has students who are blind or visually impaired on the team.

The students built the drive train, bumpers, and mechanical parts. They came up with a team name “The Dark Side”, designed a logo, developed a strategy, and worked on programming the robot to do certain tasks.

The students, coaches, and mentors are excited to see all their hard work pay off and come together in the next few days at the competition!