Austin American-Statesman Andrea Ball column
Jan 27, 2013 (Austin American-Statesman - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --
Davieon Perez presses his ear against a car-shaped robot constructed of gray and black Legos.
The 12-year-old has vision problems. He can't see the numbers on the robot's display screen, so he listens to an electronic voice that tells him which program he's setting on the small automaton.
Davieon is among seven youths on the Dot Bots, a robotics team from the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired. This weekend, the Dot Bots will fight it out at Westlake High School with 60 other teams for a chance to go to California in May, where qualifying robotics teams will compete in the North American Open Championship at Legoland.
"I don't mind not having the same vision as everybody else because we still find ways to build robots," Davieon said.
The Dot Bots (a play on Braille) are one of nearly 200 local teams in the Central Texas First Lego League, a regional group in which people ages 9 to 14 program, design and operate their automatons in competition. The local organization is a member of the international First Lego League. Skillpoint Alliance, a nonprofit job-training organization, coordinates the area tournaments.
The idea for the Dot Bots was born in May. Kay Pruett -- whose daughter is on the robotics team at the Liberal Arts and Science Academy -- was judging a First Lego tournament. Pruett, a teacher at the School for the Blind and Visually Impaired, wondered if her students could do something like that.
Pruett talked to Gerry Cocco, whose daughter was also on the robotics team. In August, after several months of research and conversation with Skillpoint, the Dot Bots were on their way.
This year's First Lego theme is about helping senior citizens. Students must program their robots to complete a set of tabletop missions related to seniors, such as quilting and exercise. Then they must develop a technology-based idea that would make seniors' lives easier.
The Dot Bots won big at their first tournament in December, snaring the Champions Award for the best-rounded teams.
"Not only did they show up and participate, they just rocked it," Jessica Galfas of Skillpoint Alliance said. "I think they really changed everyone's mind about what they could do."
The students -- most of whom are legally blind -- say they compete the way sighted competitors do. They program their robots to drive, make turns or pick up items. The only difference is that they use a computer program that reads words out loud.
Last week, Destiny Perez stood at the robot table, knocking over tiny bowling pins with a ball stationed on a ramp. Chandler Caveny pieced together a plunger for Destiny's bowling ramp. Davieon used his robot to create a quilt display.
David Arredondo, 13, said he loves being part of the Dot Bots.
"It's cool to be able to do things like people who can see and we don't need perfect vision," he said.
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