via Katherine E. Young for Richmond Times-Dispatch [link]

Some of the robots climb hills and others tell jokes.

Students at the Virginia Robotics and Cyber Academy used their new coding skills to program robots to do a variety of activities.

The five-day robotics academy, through the Career Pathways for Individuals with Disabilities, served 24 high school-age students from across Virginia. It took place at the Department for the Blind and Vision Impaired in Henrico County last Monday through Friday, serving students with disabilities ranging from blindness and low-vision to autism spectrum disorders and learning disabilities.

Christopher Freeman, a recent graduate of Meadowbrook High School in Chesterfield County, programmed his robot to perform stand-up comedy.

Freeman, who is interested in information technology as well as animation, said he knew nothing past basic Java coding prior to entering the academy.

“They teach you step by step how to (make the robot),” said Freeman, adding that he enjoyed the hands-on approach at the academy.

Students were selected to participate in the program based on their knowledge of math and science. However, students were not required to be competent in computer coding.

Students worked from 8 a.m. until 4 p.m., with lunchtime dedicated to listening to speakers from Capital One who discussed career opportunities in information technology.

At a Friday celebration, instructors talked to parents about ways students can prepare for good jobs, while students showed off their robots.

Career Pathways for Individuals with Disabilities hosts academies throughout the year to help individuals from across Virginia gain experience in fields such as technology and manufacturing.

Virginia received a $4.3 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education in 2015 to help residents with disabilities gain skills and qualify for high-demand, high-quality jobs. It was one of four states to receive federal funding for this project. The others were Kentucky, Georgia and Nebraska.

“We want to try to close the skills gap and create a pipeline of young adults with disabilities who are interested in working in the advanced manufacturing and information technology fields,” said Emily West, project manager for Career Pathways.

The academies give the students a chance to see if they have the interest and aptitude in advanced manufacturing or information technologies, she said.

The five-year grant allowed the Department for Aging and Rehabilitative Services to partner with the Department for the Blind and Vision Impaired to create the Career Pathways for Individuals with Disabilities.

The robotics academy curriculum was developed by the National Integrated Cyber Education Research Center in Bossier City, La., which is funded by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to create and distribute free cyber and engineering curricula to public schools across the country.

“We are using content that was pulled from our high school material,” said Charles Gardner, curriculum development specialist at the National Integrated Cyber Education Resource Center. “These kids are learning exactly what their traditional high school peers are learning.”

However, the format in which they learn differs from the standard. The material is presented in a less visual manner, relying more on motion and sound than sight.

“We are hoping that the adaptations that we have made here for people with disabilities to participate can be generalized to other camps across the commonwealth so young people with disabilities can participate,” said Raymond Hopkins, commissioner of the Virginia Department for the Blind and Vision Impaired.

Students use speech software, allowing them to listen to the computer to understand what is happening on the screen.

As a result of grant funding, students took their specifically designed computers, as well as the robots they created, home with them at the culmination of the academy.

Students created and programed each “Boe-Bot” individually. The robots’ functions were mostly sound-based, so students could learn together during programming stages.

“It has not just exceeded our expectations; it has exceeded their expectations,” said Hopkins of the robot academy.

“All the teachers and students are great,” Freeman said. “I would recommend (the academy) to anyone if I could.”

The Virginia Robotics and Cyber Academy is the first information technology and cyber technology academy hosted by Career Pathways. Programs are three to five days. Many involve manufacturing work.