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Building Nort - Spotlight on Team 1646's Catherine Hearn

April 2, 2013

by Marianne Messina


Catherine Hearn helps build Nort, the robot competing for team 1646

Catherine Hearn has been building things from a very early age – from Duplos, Legos and Knex to Tinker Toys, Lincoln Logs and competition bridges.  Now, as a rookie on FIRST Robotics team 1646, Catherine Hearn has been busy helping to create a sophisticated robot named Nort. On the CAD sub-team she drew designs for the robot, later she helped build the robot, and at the robot's first Regional FIRST Robotics Competition, she took notes on other robots that might compete against Nort in the future.

According to Catherine, she was a natural in the robot-building phase because she's good with her hands – "my 'magical' hands," Catherine calls them. "My hands will never get tired, as it is necessary to defy that factor in order for me to sign well."

Catherine signs because she is profoundly deaf. According to her mother Karen Hearn, "Sound must be extremely loud, greater than 90 decibels, before she hears it – like, hurting-most-people's-ears loud." Catherine has an interpreter with her all day at school who translates sound into sign and then translates Catherine's sign back into oral communication. This can make it challenging for the average teen, lacking in self-confidence, to approach Catherine for conversation. And for a long time, many of them wouldn't.

That began to change for Catherine with her involvement in FIRST Robotics. The LEA (Local Education Agency) in Catherine's area provided her with an iPad to facilitate communication while working on the project. And the FIRST Robotics organization itself provides her with interpreters for 4 hours a day on opening and closing days of a regional competition. In addition, the collaboration needed to complete a highly functioning robot in the 6-week time frame makes communication skills imperative. And Catherine's skillful involvement with Nort's building process helped create the perfect storm for social interaction.

"It is apparent," says Karen Hearn, "that at least some of her teammates are using her interpreter or writing, via computer or paper, to make an effort to communicate with Catherine beyond what is needed for the robotics project. She seems to be developing at least the potential for some real friendships." Karen could tell that Catherine was having fun at the FIRST meetings because of the stories she would tell, often funny stories. "She speaks of her fellow students," Karen said, "much more than in the past."  

Like other parents of FIRST Robotics team members, Karen contributes to the team by "making sure [Catherine] gets to all meetings and practices when she is supposed to [and] volunteering to provide one of the lunches during the intense 6-week build season." In addition, Karen has to keep on top of the schedule and communicate it to LEA so that interpreter services will be available each time Catherine meets with the team. As robot Nort came closer to completion, Karen also took to stopping in and checking on Nort's progress.  She noted how proud Catherine was of her role in the robot's progress. "I asked if they were 'keeping her busy' and one of the mentors replied that they 'were trying,' but she got things done so quickly they were having a hard time doing so."

While new friendships are a much-appreciated fringe benefit of the program for Catherine, her parents also feel she has matured during the program and experienced the practical application of "book-learning."

"I think she's learning how ...  a complex problem may be separated into several or many different problems and how teams must coordinate their work in order to produce a finished product," said David Hearn, Catherine's Dad. He considers Catherine "academically gifted," and says the opportunity to put knowledge to real-world tests is something not every high-school student receives. "In essence, she is experiencing a micro-example of the difficulties humans have in trying to harness science into doing what we want it to do."

It's obvious that Catherine is positive and highly motivated. When asked if she has any special qualities she might bring to the team, Catherine brings up her hearing. "I am deaf, so loud noises do not disturb me and I can stay focused on the task." And she already knows that engineering is in her future. "I enjoyed giving myself a challenge to overcome.  I want to become an engineer when I grow up, so the FIRST robotics team is a great place for me to start."