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November 17, 2002

Robotic Camp opens up career choices for kids

From: Pittsburgh Tribune Review, PA
Nov. 17, 2002

By Mark Houser
Sunday, November 17, 2002

Middle-school students from 15 schools tried their hand programming toy robots Saturday in an event intended to encourage children with disabilities to think about careers in science or engineering.

The Human Engineering Research Laboratories, located at the Highland Park VA Hospital complex where the robot camp was held, has sponsored high school robot teams in the past. This year, organizers decided to try younger children, said Bill Ammer, a technical coordinator at the laboratories.

"In Pennsylvania, kids aren't required to take a science after ninth grade, and kids with disabilities are often steered out of technology courses," Ammer said. "It's an old stigma — if you have a disability, you can't think — and it's not true."

So yesterday the laboratories, which design wheelchairs and similar technology, invited 26 children, half with disabilities, half without, to spend a day building motorized robots from $200 Lego kits and teaching them to run an obstacle course.

Marco Giovengo, 12, from Marshall Middle School in Marshall Township, was enthusiastic about tapping out directions for his team's robot using a controller on the arm of his wheelchair.

"Cool," he said. "I like it. It's fun."

Giovengo, a seventh-grader with muscular dystrophy, said he would like to work in a scientific field.

Team member Larry Jordan, 13, from Rogers Middle School in Pittsburgh, said he enjoys robots, computers, and all things electronic, too — even if he did forget to check the power on his hearing-aid batteries before coming to the event and wound up having to do without.

"The programming is the most interesting thing, making (the robot) do what you want it to do," Jordan said.

The program was organized by the laboratories and Tech-Link, a local nonprofit group that also arranges internships and career counseling for youths with disabilities. It was sponsored by Mitsubishi Electric America Foundation and the Howard Heinz Endowments.

Rory Cooper, director of the laboratories and chairman of the University of Pittsburgh Department of Rehabilitation Science and Technology, said "mixed" teams are important.

"It helps break down the barriers," said Cooper, who has used a wheelchair since the age of 20, when a bus hit him while he was bicycling and left him paralyzed from the waist down.

"In the future someone will say, 'I was on a robot team with a kid with a disability for six years. I don't see why we can't hire a person with a disability,'" he said.

copyright © 2002 by The Tribune-Review Publishing Co.