In October 2015 Holland Bloorview launched the first program with a focus on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) in the GTA for kids with disabilities, in partnership with FIRST® Robotics Canada. The HB FIRST® Robotics program began as a pilot program and has since expanded to offer classes in the winter, spring and fall for outpatient clients, from ages six to 14. To date, over 250 participants have registered in the program and taken away decision-making, problem-solving and teamwork skills through an innovative and creative learning experience that sparks their interest in STEM.
I first learned about FIRST® Robotics Canada when my son was a little kid and participated in FIRST® LEGO League. I was just blown away when I went to watch the first competition he participated in. The kids were motivated, the whole program taught skills far beyond the robot including communication and team work, and it was really fun. When I was at Ryerson University I worked with FIRST® Robotics Canada CEO Mark Breadner to bring the GTA FIRST® Robotics Competition to Ryerson’s Mattamy Athletic Centre and to bring Ryerson in as a sponsor.
Shortly after I became CEO of Holland Bloorview Mark came to visit me here and we thought there could be an amazing opportunity to bring FIRST® Robotics to a children’s hospital and particularly into the lives of children with disabilities. Ever since, FIRST® Robotics Canada has been an exceptional partner and is deeply aligned to our commitment to equity, diversity and inclusion and meaningful lives and futures for kids with disabilities. The FIRST® folks even have a Capes for Kids team!
This month I’m interviewing Lynn Rampertab, the robotics coordinator at Holland Bloorview, who leads the HB FIRST® Robotics program. Lynn has been with FIRST® Robotics Canada since 2008 specializing in STEM Education. She joined Holland Bloorview in 2015 to break ground on the HB FIRST® Robotics partnership.
What has been the response from kids who have participated in the program?
Some of the best feedback I’ve heard comes directly from our participants and their families. Participants have fun in the program and for some it’s given them an opportunity to explore their interest in computers and programming. Parents love that their kids are meaningfully engaged and eager to learn something new.
From my perspective, watching children arrive to their session with enthusiasm and excitement is always rewarding.
From your perspective, how do the kids benefit from learning about STEM and robotics?
Building literacy in STEM is a necessity in today’s technology enriched environment. STEM competence and confidence creates pathways to well-paying jobs and entrepreneurial opportunities in the fastest-growing fields, creating the potential for young people to achieve purposeful and prosperous lives. Often these opportunities don’t exist for children with disabilities. Exposing children with disabilities to STEM and robotics opens up a world of possibilities they may not have considered before.
How did the partnership between FIRST® Robotics Canada and Holland Bloorview begin?
In the summer of 2015, FIRST® Robotics Canada was invited to meet with a team from Holland Bloorview to look at how we could collaborate on a program that promotes STEM-interest amongst children with disabilities. The FIRST® Robotics Canada team worked very closely with the multidisciplinary staff at Holland Bloorview to ensure we built in adaptive features that removed the barriers to access while maintaining a high degree of learning in both building and programming robots.
FIRST® Robotics Canada developed the curriculum, provided expert teaching leads to facilitate the classes and recruited volunteers for the program. Holland Bloorview created the adaptive features and helps to recruit additional volunteers, when needed.
A great example of this collaboration is the Communicator 5 program, which allows a child that uses a hummer switch to interface with our LabView-based computer program. We have also created digital files that allow children to build virtually instead of physically and use hand-over-hand techniques, where a child’s hand rests on top of a volunteer’s while they perform activities, among other accessibility features to further enhance participation.
How did you get involved with FIRST® Robotics Canada and end up leading the program?
I started in FIRST® Robotics Canada as a parent who watched my own children find something they were passionate about while learning real world skills like problem solving, critical thinking, teamwork, communication, presentation and time management. The turning point for me was watching my children help other teams at a competition even though they were competing against them. It was inspiring to see. As my children become more immersed within the program, I became a volunteer to stay connected to them and share in an activity that they felt passionate about.
After a couple of years, I was offered a position and I jumped at the opportunity to continue working to spread the principles of this program beyond my own community. FIRST® Robotics Canada gave me the opportunity to make a real difference and challenged me with many new initiatives. My work with FIRST® Robotics Canada led me to Holland Bloorview.
What are the key factors that have made the program a success?
It was important to make sure the HB FIRST® Robotics program included STEM concepts coupled with meaningful participation and real world skill building opportunities. We’ve also embedded a rigorous research and evaluation component in the program to help ensure that we are meeting the needs of children and youth moving forward.
The success of this program has really been threefold. The partnership Holland Bloorview has forged with FIRST® Robotics Canada, the sponsorship we have received from Capital One and Argosy Foundation and the access to passionate staff from multidisciplinary backgrounds have all been key ingredients to our success.
What’s the one thing about developing or running the program that has been the most challenging?
One of the biggest challenges I had at the onset of developing this program was my own mindset. I had never worked with children with disabilities and had no idea what to expect. I found that when I shed my own biases and recognized that each child learns in their own unique way, it opened my mind up to new possibilities. Then we were able to create a program that meets all our goals of fostering life skills, self-confidence, communication and social skills, while increasing interest in STEM.
As this program moves forward, we continue to develop lessons that are focused on computer programming and building concepts and we work with other Holland Bloorview staff to make sure they are accessible. We work with each child and their family to develop a unique learning strategy that allows them to participate meaningful both with the program content and their peers.
Talk about the plans to offer the program at other hospitals and organizations for kids with disabilities
In a concerted effort to connect the system, Holland Bloorview has linked with Children’s Treatment Centres to advance collaborative partnerships and fill gaps so clients across Ontario can participate in robotics programming. Examples of these partnerships include KidsAbility in Cambridge, ErinoakKids in the GTA and Grandview Children’s Centre in Oshawa who all have plans to run their first pilot in the fall of 2018.