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Tablet mounted to a Segway-like device allows teen to attend school from home



For the past couple of months there’s been a full-blown robot walking, or more accurately rolling, through the halls of Wilsonville’s Inza R. Wood Middle School. It moves among students during passing periods, communicates with students and teachers and even participates in class on a regular basis.

But to be clear, the school is not in danger of being overtaken by artificial intelligence. The robot belongs to seventh-grade student Natalie Opager, who started at Wood in January thanks to the piece of technology. SUBMITTED PHOTO - Natalie Opager's robot allows her to complete activities at home as if she's in school with her classmates.

Natalie enrolled in the West Linn-Wilsonville School District in the summer, but just three days later was unexpectedly diagnosed with aplastic anemia — a blood disease requiring a bone marrow transplant and bouts of chemotherapy to overcome the ailment.

Thankfully, her sister, Kate, was a 100 percent match for donor cells and the procedure was a success, but Natalie’s immune system remains vulnerable and weak, meaning she must stay at home for the time being, away from potential viruses and bacteria. Having already missed out on the majority of first semester, Natalie and administration at Wood went searching for a solution to the problem. They found one in the Double Robot, a device that allows Natalie to attend class, without actually being in class.

Provided by the Clackamas Education Services District as something of a trial for future students, the robot looks similar to a Segway, with wheels at the base, and a long, skinny pole that juts upwards to about eye level. The top of the pole is attached with a screen and built-in camera, which functions as a tablet or iPad, and can display Natalie — who is connected to the robot via an app on an iPad of her own at home. The device allows her to see and communicate with students and teachers at Wood in real time as if she’s physically present.

“I’ve gotten used to it at this point, and it actually works really well most of the time,” Natalie says. “There were some problems at first, and the connection lags out sometimes, but mostly I can see and hear as if I’m actually there.”

Natalie can move the robot from her iPad, swiveling for a better view or moving across the room, but because passing periods can be chaotic with hundreds of students stampeding toward their next class, Assistant Principal Leah Torres — who facilitated the acquisition and implementation of the robot — enlisted two of Natalie’s classmates for help.

Fellow seventh-graders Aurora Barkley and Madeline Crumpton stepped up to the challenge — making sure Natalie gets to and from classes. Standing on either side, the pair carry the contraption to whatever class Natalie has next, positioning her toward the front of class so that she can listen to lectures, partake in class assignments and even participate in discussions.

The presence of a robot in school was a major topic of intrigue for students when Natalie first arrived, but everyone has since gotten used to the situation.SPOKESMAN PHOTO: VERN UYETAKE - Natalie Opager uses her robot to interact with a classmate.

“When we first walked her through the hallways people would get really interested and yell things like ‘What is that? Who is she?’” Aurora says. “We would have to move them away to get through the hallway, and some people would come up and try and push buttons sometimes. But now people are mostly used to it, and it doesn’t really distract anyone during class. She’s kind of just a normal student.”

“It’s just really cool how adaptive this generation of learners is,” says Megan Dobson, Natalie’s language arts teacher. “I think that their interaction with technology is so normal for them that her being on an iPad isn’t as big of a deal. For some of the adults in the building, when we heard we were going to have a robot, we were taken aback. But it hasn’t been that big of a deal in terms of distractions, honestly.”SPOKESMAN PHOTO: VERN UYETAKE - From left, Aurora Barkley, Erin Johnson and Madeline Crumpton look forward to seeing Natalie in school following spring break.

Natalie raises her hand when she has a question or something to add during class discussion, just like any other student, and by adjusting the volume of the robot she can be heard by the entire class. There were some connection difficulties and adjustments for Natalie and teachers at first, but all kinks have since been worked out. The connection still lags at times, requiring Natalie to constantly repeat herself, but other than that she says the technology has worked as it should.

Natalie occasionally visits in person before or after school when students aren’t around to meet with teachers in person and get clarification on assignments. She takes tests at home to complete the majority of the same curriculum as the other kids in her grade, and while working from home has its limitations, Dobson says Natalie has made the most of the situation.

“It’s crazy to think Natalie is so capable, and so able to contribute,” she says. “Natalie’s ability to be a part of our academic conversations, all of us honoring her voice and her getting exposure to her classmates’ voices and faces, has been really meaningful.”

While the unique setup has allowed Natalie to keep mostly up-to-date with her studies, everyone is excited for March 28, the first day back from spring break, when she’s scheduled to attend school in person for the first time. She thanks Aurora and Madeline for helping her traverse the school, and says she’s most excited to finally meet many of the classmates she’s only seen through a computer screen.SPOKESMAN PHOTO: VERN UYETAKE - From left, Madeline Crumpton, Aurora Barkley and Erin Johnson chat with Natalie Opager through the robot.

“When I walk down the hallways with the robot, even students that don’t have her in class, they don’t talk about the technology, they say ‘Hi Natalie, good morning,’” Torres says. “So they don’t think of her as a robot, they’re asking about Natalie the person. ... It’s allowed her to become a part of our community here at Wood and make some friends even before she can actually comes to school.”

“It’s a unique situation in that she was new to school through this technology,” Dobson says. “I really admire her bravery, starting through the technology. I think a lot of kids might have felt too shy or felt funny being the kid on the screen. We’re just really glad to have her.”

Aurora and Madeline say they’re as excited as anyone for Natalie’s arrival. They’ve met her in person a couple different times, but say they’re excited to eat lunch and just hang out with their friend.

“We’re excited because the robot is really heavy,” Madeline jokes. “But we’re more excited to actually see her every day.”

Because the experiment has gone so well, Natalie says she would without a doubt recommend students in a similar circumstance to utilize the robot technology. Her mom, Deidre Opager, says the entire process has been an incredible one for her daughter and family.SPOKESMAN PHOTO: VERN UYETAKE - Natalie Opager hopes to be back in school following spring break March 28.

“Leah Torres and all of her teachers have just been so wonderful, we can’t thank them enough,” Deidre says. “We were worried she would fall behind in math, especially, missing so much time, but with everyone’s help the whole thing has truly been amazing. Natalie has a lot to be thankful for.”

“I’m glad for everyone at school that has helped me, and it’s been good to participate in class,” Natalie says, reflecting on the past two months. “But I’m really ready to come to school like everyone else.”

Contact Andrew Kilstrom at 503-636-1281 ext. 112 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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