Tuesday, April 23, 2024

GISD Unified Robotics teams qualify for state at Special Olympics Texas Winter Games

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Two Granbury Independent School District Unified Robotics teams qualified for the state championship during the Special Olympics Texas Winter Games held in Bee Cave Feb. 16.

Students from STEAM Academy at Mambrino, Acton Middle School, Granbury Middle School and Granbury High School participated in the competition, with two teams set to compete in the championship this weekend in the Dallas area.

The Special Olympics Unified Champion Schools program is aimed at promoting social inclusion through intentionally planned and implemented activities affecting systems-wide change in K–12 schools and across college campuses. With sports as the foundation, the three-component model offers a unique combination of effective activities that equip young people with tools and training to create sports, classroom and school climates of acceptance. These are school climates where students with disabilities feel welcome and are routinely included in, and feel a part of, all activities, opportunities and functions, according to specialolympics.org.

“Unified Robotics is like a division within our Unified Champion Schools, and we currently have five campuses in the district that are considered Unified Champion Schools,” Sandie Sermarini, GISD occupational therapist, told the Hood County News. “One of the programs that they assist with is Unified Robotics.”

Sermarini explained that last year, GISD conducted a practice meet to see if a Unified Robotics competition would be feasible, with Special Olympics providing all the equipment for the robots. However, by the time the parts were distributed to the students, the competition season was already over.

“What our high school teams did for us was amazing,” she said. “They held a showcase tournament for us, so all of our teams were still able to compete. We also paired with our Gifted and Talented program, so we were able to do the competition with the GT kids that were in seventh grade, both in AMS and GMS, so it wasn't just our unified kids.”

Sermarini said after competing in the practice meet last year, there was a better understanding of how to get the program up and running this year.

"We actually had six teams this year. We had two over at Mambrino, one at Acton Middle School, two at Granbury Middle School and then we had one at Granbury High School,” she said. “Our team is varied from two team members up to four per team. The way that the teams are focused is we have to have a one-to-one ratio for a student with special needs, which instead of using special needs, we call them athletes, and then with a gen-ed student, which is their partner. It's really a program for inclusion to just make sure that our kids are having opportunities to be working alongside with their general education peers.”

Sermarini explained that the elementary and middle school teams had a different game than the high school teams, as they were competing with VEX IQ, which are plastic pieces similar to Legos.

"They snap together to build their robots, which is pretty quick and fast compared to the high school kids because they are actually using metal, so you have to use screws and bolts,” she said. “It takes a lot longer to build their robots and a lot more fine motor skills, so it's a little bit of a different challenge.”

She also talked about how every year there is a new game, and each team goes through the design process to build their robot using different ideas and strategies.

“When working with each team on their challenge for the year, the most important theme that I noticed is the friendships that were formed at each practice between the athletes and their partners and then working together as a team for the building, driving and working on the notebook to meet the robotics challenge for the year,” Sermarini said. “It's always fun to see each student's talents shine as a team member and find out what they love to do and how they can contribute to the team for their specific area, and also see how that changes throughout the season. When you hear the students yell ‘yes’ and jump up and down with excitement, it's just priceless.”

She added that seeing the “kids being kids” in the overnight hotel stay was amazing, as they hung out with their teammates and families in a relaxed and non-stressed environment.

The following students and coaches were involved in the Special Olympics Texas Winter Games:

Mambrino Elementary – Coaches Justin Burton, Deb Miller and Sandie Sermarini

The Eels — 3707A (Advancing to elementary state competition March 2)

  • Brantley Kelly
  • Alem Webb
  • Finn Burton
  • Harrison Ochoa

The Super Stars — 3707B

  • Kyndall Huggins
  • Karter Enix
  • Ava Downs
  • Natalie Balatti

Acton Middle School — Coaches Daniel Sifuentes, Aaron Wright and Sandie Sermarini

Taco Chacos — 76048A (Advancing to middle school state competition March 2)

  • Gavin Hutchison
  • Bryan Valerio
  • Layla Kowalewski
  • Erin Huebinger

Granbury Middle School — Coaches Ashley Gomez and Sandie Sermarini

Taki's Dragon Bro — 76049A

  • James Sherouse
  • Jaime Rosas
  • Hendrix Harvey
  • Caden McCarthy

Bot Men — 76049B

  • Alex Webb
  • Konan Dagley

Granbury High School – Coaches Michelle Hunsinger and Sandie Sermarini

The Spurs — 76047A

  • Madison Crawford
  • Alexander Pojas

Sermarini said Special Olympics covered hotels for all the families and coaches for the Winter Games.

“Many contributing sponsors have helped us to receive the materials for this program, educate our coaches, and register our teams for competitions,” she said. “We have been blessed with Tammy Hortenstine from Special Olympics Texas to assist all of our teams with VEX kits and with providing the lodging and transportation to the SOTX Winter Games events. Diana Fultz with REC has assisted our district with applying for a grant with Google to cover registration fees for our teams and event costs. Megan Gonzales and Wade Wilcox with Unified Champion Schools have been our UCS representatives who have given us all of the support we have requested and needed throughout the year. Crystal Cote of the Silver Needle Design Company assisted with the design and fabrication of all of the team shirts.”

She added that none of this would be possible without Special Education Director Shelly Curtsinger, who worked with the team to make sure there was space and staff available to offer this program to the students at GISD.

"We have embraced inclusion for a long time, bringing our students with disabilities into classrooms to learn in the same spaces as their peers,” Curtsinger said. “The next step, which we are learning through the Unified Champion Schools model, is understanding how unified sports invites us to rethink the possibilities for all students to work/learn/play side-by-side.”

Curtsinger also thanked Sermarini for being “the catalyst” in contributing to the effort by “bringing us all together and moving in the unified direction.”

"This was an incredible experience to travel with our families and see the joy competing brought not only the students but their parents as well," Mambrino Principal Melissa Shipp added.

The Mambrino Eels team and AMS Tacos Chacos team are now set to compete in the state competition Saturday, March 2, in both Dallas and Garland for the elementary and middle school championships.

For more information about Special Olympics, visit specialolympics.org online.