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Building blind: students with visual impairments build robot with University of Iowa help

Imagine building a robot. Unless you're a robotics expert, the task seems daunting in many respects.

Now imagine building said robot with little to no sight.

For six high school students with visual impairments -- James Cheek, Cody Davis, Danny Grimes, Kadyn Haggard, Joel Murray and Jose Urbano -- this is their goal, as they gear up to compete at the 2017 Iowa Regional FIRST Robotics Competition.

Some of the six have low vision. Others are completely blind.

So how do they do it?

"We ask for help," said Danny Grimes, a junior at Iowa City West who is blind. "Sometimes as a human, we are too prideful to ask for help, but it's fine to ask."

The help they seek comes in several forms, and at the forefront is the University of Iowa's College of Engineering.

"They not only let me borrow robots, but they said wouldn't it be nice to start a team," explains Sara Larkin, who serves as a statewide math consultant for the Iowa Educational Services for the Blind and Visually Impaired.

Larkin applied for a grant with the STEM Scale-Up Program, and was awarded $6,000; $4,000 for equipment and $2,000 for mentoring.

Partnering with the UI's College of Engineering, and thanks to the Kirkwood Regional Center in Coralville for providing a practice space, the journey toward competing for a robotics regional title took a big first step.

Their latest step along the way came in the form of a Saturday get-together with the six students -- who came up with the team name 'The Dark Side' -- as well as two sighted students from Iowa City West (Eric Rush and Gabe Trappe) and a handful of participants from the University of Iowa (graduate students Bakir Hajdarevic, Jacob Hermann, and Baike Shem, postdoctoral student Amin Motahar, assistant professors Zhen Kan and Xuan Song, and director of the Advanced Pulmonary Physiomic Imaging Lab Eric Hoffman).

Saturday's meeting was the last before the competition, which begins March 23 in Cedar Falls.

Joel Murray, a freshman at Thomas Jefferson High School in Council Bluffs, said there have been several "setbacks" with setting up the robot, but the team has built a robotics machine capable of driving, turning and even climbing a rope.

Director Eric Hoffman said this is the first time the university has "done anything like this," but added he hopes the relationship between the engineering department and the students with visual impairments is one they can develop and build upon for years to come.

This is the first time students with visual impairments with compete in the annual FIRST Robotics Competition.

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