Mariner High School Student Strengthens Family Bonds Through Unified Robotics

By March 8, 2017Press Room

Gabi Stansberry and Madeleine Schwitters at the 2016 Special Olympics Unified Robotics Championship event at Pacific Science Center.

As a student with special needs, Gabi Stansberry has struggled with many things that most 14-year-old girls her age take for granted. Finding friends with common interests, having opportunities to try new things, and being included in a society that doesn’t understand her uniqueness have been constant challenges.

After living in Oregon for most of her life, Gabi recently moved back to the Seattle area and is a freshman at Mariner High School. She was excited to get to know her extended family, especially her cousin Madeleine who is currently a junior at King’s Schools in Seattle.

Madeleine is a member of the CyberKnights, a FIRST Washington Robotics Team from King’s Schools. In 2015, one of her teammates started Unified Robotics, a robotics program for students with and without intellectual disabilities, as a way to connect with her sister who had been diagnosed with Autism. Madeleine immediately thought of Gabi and how much fun it would be for the two of them to build and program a robot together. Up until then, Madeleine didn’t know how to connect with Gabi and was even a bit scared to try because she didn’t know how to navigate her disabilities.

When Madeleine asked Gabi if she wanted to form a robotics team together, Gabi quickly agreed. At the time, she probably didn’t know exactly what she was agreeing to but she knew it meant she got to spend time with her cousin.

The first step for Madeleine and Gabi was to form a team which is not an easy feat. Each team needs a coach, mentor, LEGO EV3 kit for building the robot, and a computer for programming. There’s also the expense of team uniforms and a practice field. Determined to make it happen without the support of a school or organization, Madeleine used her Christmas money to buy the LEGO kit and purchased robot themed dresses and leggings for them to wear as a uniform. They became known as the Metallic Cousins and registered as a team.

Over a 6-week period, Gabi and Madeleine proceeded to build a battle-bot style robot out of LEGOS with the goal to push another robot out of the ring. It proved to be difficult at times as Madeleine learned how to communicate with Gabi and also keep her on task. But the joy on Gabi’s face when their robot came alive the first time was worth every moment. The season culminated with the cousins competing at the Special Olympics Unified Robotics World Championship at the Pacific Science Center in December 2016.

“As the competition grew closer, Gabi became more and more excited,” said Jami Stanberry, Gabi’s mother. “The first thing she would ask me every morning was if today was the day to do robots. She even came out of her room ready for school in her robot dress more than once!”

The day had finally arrived and Gabi and Madeleine competed in the championship event alongside 32 teams and 150 students in Washington State. They came in 2nd place in their division and won the Dazzling Design Award.

With Special Olympics Unified Robotics, it didn’t matter that Gabi has special needs. She was given the same opportunity as every other student to try new things and experience the joy of designing, building and programming a robot. At that moment at the Championship event, Gabi was just a high school girl celebrating her victory!

“When I first asked Gabi to form a robotics team with me, I thought it would be nice to teach her about robotics,” said Madeleine. “What I didn’t realize was how much Gabi would teach me. I learned about the gap that exists in STEM education and how students with special needs have been excluded from this exciting field. I learned that they have a lot to contribute and we must find ways to provide an inclusive environment for all people, regardless of their circumstances. I also learned that I have a really cool cousin who is fun to hang out with and who also loves cats and robots as much as I do!”

The cousins are already planning to participate in Special Olympics Unified Robotics next year and can’t wait to start shopping for the perfect matching outfit!