Robots Go to Prison

Robots Go to Prison

On a sunny January Monday morning, a room full of female inmates at the Washington Corrections Center for Women were troubleshooting robots about the size of a chocolate chip cookie. The little robots were buzzing and wiggling all over tables spread across two rooms in the prison’s education building. TCC runs an education program at the prison and for this special day, partnered with Unloop, a Seattle-based nonprofit, to bring the tech industry and computer programming within reach of prison inmates.

About 25 women attended the workshop, and it was a mix of general population inmates and ones who are currently in the TCC program. Lindsey Wilson and David Almeida (with Unloop), led the workshop along with their helpers. Both work in the tech industry, and both want to use software programming skills as a way to break the prison cycle.

“Technology is an industry where your ability is what matters, not where you’ve been or the degrees you have. It’s a good fit for people making a life after prison,” said Wilson.

After an icebreaker activity of building paper airplanes, the students broke into eight groups to build their AERobot (Affordable Education Robot). Each kit only costs $20, so these are ideal educational tools. After about five minutes, each group had a working robot that would vibrate across a surface using two vibrating motors that you find in mobile phones.

With the hardware taken care of, it was time to move to the software side and start testing the robots. With the eventual goal of being able to program a series of commands – turn left, go straight, turn left – the students needed to calibrate their robots first. This was interesting as the robots would sometimes act “funky.”

Laughing, one student exclaimed, “It’s supposed to go forward. It’s going backwards.” Time for some more calibration.

Sarah Sytsma, who works for the TCC program at the prison, was excited about this one-day workshop and the partnership with Unloop. “This is the first one, but we want to do more of these,” she said.

The technology exposure provided to the women is immense. Some of the women had many years of computer experience and some had very little, though they all shared an interest in computers.

“I’m doing Business Technology,” said Karen Schmid, who was one of the inmates in the TCC program. “Computers are the future, and long-term, it’s a good option for a job.”

Indeed, they received real-world experiences of problem-solving, teamwork, and software troubleshooting in dealing with their finicky robots.

It was clear that the robots were so much more than the sum of their PCBs, USB ports, and vibrating motors. The groups started giving names to their robots. Wen, Sherman, Wall-e, and HKCC2 dutifully served their purpose of teaching a little bit about hardware, software, and programming to a group of women interested in their futures.

This is part of our In the Classroom series, where we visit different classrooms throughout the TCC community.

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