Robot helps chronically ill student keep up in class

Leader Photo by Lee Pulaski The Double Robot, operated by Matt Heindel, rolls around the district conference room at Shawano Community High School on Monday, being watched by, from left, school board president Tyler Schmidt; superintendent Gary Cumberland; school board members Michael Sleeper, Alysia Pillsbury and Beth McFarlane; and school board executive assistant Lori Sherman.

Students at Olga Brener Intermediate School are used to seeing their peers in the classrooms and hallways.

They just weren’t used to seeing one of them in robot form.

The Shawano School District purchased a Double Robot earlier this year to allow a female student with an extended illness to still be part of classroom learning, albeit from a distance.

“The student wanted to be here but could not,” said Kim Klister, director of pupil services, which purchased the robot. “The student still wanted to be engaged with her classmates and stay up on her academic progress. We thought about doing a packet exchange (with written materials being sent to the student) or possibly having her teachers go to the home and help with homework.”

The robot paid a visit to the Shawano School Board on Monday, with district computer technician Matt Heindel at the controls. Board members were able to see that any student who could not physically be at school could potentially still be learning with the help of the robot and an iPad or Chromebook.

Heindel noted the robot has a 10-hour battery life if it is remaining stationary the majority of the time, but if it’s constantly in motion, that time could be reduced.

Klister said she did some research online and found that other school districts were utilizing robots like the Double Robot to help chronically ill students continue to learn. According to the website for Double Robotics, the company that builds the robots, they can also be used when teachers might be ill or someone is unable to travel for a presentation.

“They have named it Bot, for short,” Klister noted of the robot being used at Olga Brener. “The robot allows the student to join in real time, live, and participate in classroom discussions.”

Without the robot, the student would likely have missed 90 days of school this year, according to school principal Terri Schultz.

Schultz said that the robot still requires a human handler to assist if needed when going from place to place. She noted it’s not as simple as controlling a remote-controlled toy car.

“Bot rolls around the building, and the kids treat it like the student, and that’s how we taught them to treat it,” Schultz said.

Even with the human handler, the student is able to navigate through the halls with ease.

“That is no small feat, but she picked it up very quickly,” Schultz said.

She said the student started out the year with her class but had to step away from the physical setting three weeks into the year. That’s when the robot was put into play.

“Since then, the child has been in and out and in and out,” Schultz said. “When she’s on the Bot, it’s just like she’s there. Children aren’t as shy sometimes about the technology as the adults are, so she has no shyness in telling her fellow students to get out of her face.”

Schultz clarified that getting out of the student’s face meant that sometimes another student would get too close via the magnifying screen and look like he or she is filling the entire screen.

“From the student’s perspective, it was an involvement piece. It was not perceived as being different,” Schultz said.

The student’s family was initially concerned about whether she’d be able to learn while going through a variety of settings — being at Ronald McDonald House, staying at other hospitals and recovering at home — but once the school suggested the robot, that concern disappeared.

The district has since purchased a second robot to be activated if there are additional students who expect to be absent for an extended period. Each robot costs $2,000 per unit, with additional costs for purchasing a computer to control it.

“Unfortunately, we have a couple of more students who are quite ill, as well,” Klister said. “This really does outweigh anything else we can provide for a student who is ill and wants to be here.”