Tablet mounted to a Segway-like device allows teen to attend school from home
For the past couple of months theres been a full-blown robot walking, or more accurately rolling, through the halls of Wilsonvilles 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.
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 Natalies 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 shes physically present.
Ive 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 Im 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 Natalies 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.
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 doesnt really distract anyone during class. Shes kind of just a normal student.
Its just really cool how adaptive this generation of learners is, says Megan Dobson, Natalies language arts teacher. I think that their interaction with technology is so normal for them that her being on an iPad isnt 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 hasnt been that big of a deal in terms of distractions, honestly.
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 arent 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.
Its crazy to think Natalie is so capable, and so able to contribute, she says. Natalies 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 shes scheduled to attend school in person for the first time. She thanks Aurora and Madeline for helping her traverse the school, and says shes most excited to finally meet many of the classmates shes only seen through a computer screen.
When I walk down the hallways with the robot, even students that dont have her in class, they dont talk about the technology, they say Hi Natalie, good morning, Torres says. So they dont think of her as a robot, theyre asking about Natalie the person. ... Its allowed her to become a part of our community here at Wood and make some friends even before she can actually comes to school.
Its 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. Were just really glad to have her.
Aurora and Madeline say theyre as excited as anyone for Natalies arrival. Theyve met her in person a couple different times, but say theyre excited to eat lunch and just hang out with their friend.
Were excited because the robot is really heavy, Madeline jokes. But were 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.
Leah Torres and all of her teachers have just been so wonderful, we cant thank them enough, Deidre says. We were worried she would fall behind in math, especially, missing so much time, but with everyones help the whole thing has truly been amazing. Natalie has a lot to be thankful for.
Im glad for everyone at school that has helped me, and its been good to participate in class, Natalie says, reflecting on the past two months. But Im really ready to come to school like everyone else.