It’s a Sunday afternoon in March at Green Acres Center in Fairfax, and Room 112 is full of high schoolers in team t-shirts, younger kids . . . and robots. Members of Team Robowiz, a FIRST Tech Challenge (FTC, high-school level) robotics team, joined by two other teams they invited, are teaching a handful of autistic youngsters the basics of robotics. Eight out of ten Robowiz team members are TJ students, as are four out of six Shockwave team members and one member of Nuts & Bolts.
In an adjoining room, Robowiz Head Coach Suprotik Ghose, parent of team member Shomik Ghose, TJ ’17 (and Shomiron Ghose, TJ ’13) is sharing a Power Point presentation with the youngsters’ parents, telling the story of how he began coaching in 2007 and giving them tips for starting their own FIRST Robotics teams. Assistant Coach Jugnu Agrawal, parent of Radhika Agrawal, TJ ’17, is speaking one-on-one with a parent who is watching her son from the doorway.
This afternoon’s program is an extension of an eight-week, four-session pilot program Robowiz led in the fall of 2014. Working with the Autism Society of Northern Virginia (ASNV), Robowiz’s Spreading Technology and Robotics Together (START) program introduced robotics to eight kids with autism.
Programs like START and its extension offer hands-on engineering and robotics experience, while building teamwork and social skills, enhancing autistic kids’ self-image while putting them on track to develop skills the workplace is hungry for. As their Executive Director Sarah Peterson explained, ASNV is challenging the autism community to move beyond advocating for awareness and toward “autism acceptance,” where the abilities of autistic children and adults are recognized and where they are given the chance to shine. According to Peterson, the local technology sector is very interested in hiring autistic people who have the skills they need. “I’m hugely thankful to Robowiz for starting this program,” she said.
Team Robowiz, which has been together for eight years, has reached the state level seven years in a row and the national level four of those years. This year it placed 22nd in the National East tournament, only two spots away from advancing to the World Championship. In addition to its work with ASNV, the team also mentors several FIRST Lego League (FLL, ages 9-14) and FTC teams in the area and has managed the GMU FLL Tournament for the last two years.
Sponsoring Robowiz for 2014-2015 are:
Houston Mechatronics, Inc.
Shabas Solutions, LLC
Bluestone Innovations, LLC
SPH America, LLC
Zillion Technologies, Inc.
LEAP (Lifeskills & Education for students with Autism & other Pervasive behavioral challenges)
Seer Information Technology, Inc.