A Segway-like robot glides through the halls of Miller Junior High as crowds of children head toward their next class, clutching their books and passing the robot as if it were just another of their peers. Eighth-grader Trinity Olson speaks seriously into its face — an iPad screen perched atop a long skinny pole.
“Don’t look at the robot, you’re not allowed to!” she tells Karli Heikkila, another eighth-grader whose face appears on the screen in live time. Heikkila is directing the robot on another iPad in the school’s cafeteria. Olson helps guide it as a training exercise, helping to make sure it does not bump into anything or anyone.
A group of four girls stop on the way to class to wave at the robot, which is currently on test loan to the junior high from the Educational Service District 113. Heikkila waves back through the screen.
Heikkila’s iPad shows the view from the “eyes” of the robot — well, as much as the iPad camera eye can see — and has arrows for directing which way the robot will move. The camera can point down and up, and the skinny “neck” can rise to about 5 foot tall.
Heikkila is directing the robot for Miller Junior High seventh grader Tevin Cone, who on this particular day is at a hospital in Seattle.
ESD 113 is allowing the school to use the new technology, rent free thus far, so that Cone, who has often needed to leave school over the past five months due to medical issues, can enjoy the educational and social benefits of being able to direct a robot to traverse the school walls when he can’t.
It is the only robot purchased by ESD 113 — a cost of $2,500 (not including the two iPads necessary for its use), or about half of what others like it cost, said Debbie Hale, 113’s Regional Tech Coordinator. The robot called a “Double” by its creators, Double Robotics, uses an app — available on iTunes — also called Double. ESD 113 chose Aberdeen and Miller Junior High as the first place to test it out because of the technological savviness for which the school is already known: including its 1 to 1 iPad program (the first junior high in the state to introduce one), instituted under current principal Mark Decker, according to Hale.
“It was a natural place to give it a whirl if they were interested,” said Hale, who added she also decided upon Aberdeen because of the district’s enthusiastic response of technology director Mike Williams.
Hale sees the intent of the robot as ” … not social at all. But really educational and academic.”
” … It’s far and above getting an email from the teacher or a friend bringing homework home,” said Hale of the benefits to students like Cone. “It has that audio and that visual to draw from.”
But Decker and Williams say it works well for the social aspect of school, if not more so than the academic benefits.
“It’s about keeping kids active in the social environment of school,” said Decker, adding one could easily place an iPad on a desk at school, but the robot takes it to another level of social mobility. He also points out that the lack of a 360 degree viewing range for the iPad camera means students do not have peripheral vision in the classroom — something Hale said they are looking to correct and that will likely evolve.
Mike Troupe, Cone’s grandfather, said the robot is “opening up his (grandson’s) eyes to possibilities” of how he can deal with having to stay home from school.
“And to be able to work through the iPad has been exciting for him … to see some of his friends and they can see and hear him,” he said.
Williams said the robot has made them aware of some “weak spots” in their wireless connection, as the robot will periodically lose the connection that allows the iPad app to guide it. This has frustrated Cone, too, said Troupe.
“He’s a little lackadaisical on it right now because it has to be rebooted so often,” he said, adding that once everything is “straightened out,” Cone will be able to use the robot for more educational purposes on a consistent basis if need be.
The school is currently looking toward the federal E-rate funding program, which provides discounts on telecommunications and Internet access for low-income urban and rural areas, to update their wireless system in the near future, said Williams .
The school has enlisted eight other students to help guide the robot along with Cone’s guidance, and Williams said the effect has been as transformative for those children as it is for Cone — helping to aid self esteem, and participation from some who may be having difficulties elsewhere.
“It’s a great app for kids who are home-bound to interact with peers and the reverse is true too,” he said. adding it may aid in acquiring leadership skills or an interest in science and technology. “It gives them something to get up in front of the class and say I’m doing this.”
ESD 113’s hope is to move the robot to Thurston County for use with a 15-year old girl who was recently paralyzed in an accident. However, if it does not end up going there Hale said they will start renting it out at a fee of just under $200 a week. This change would be in the hopes that schools like Miller Junior High will purchase their own and also to help aid them in going district to district in introducing and training for the robots.
For Hale, its all part of improving the educational environment through whatever means possible.
“… It’s a proof of concept thing. Especially if you have a student home, and a lot of (the schools) do. Kids get discouraged, they’re sick or they can’t get to school and there is a danger of them dropping out,” she said of the benefit of having such an option for such students. She added she thinks the cost of such a robot is “do-able” or “comparable to the cost of a desktop computer.”
Williams said the school was a great fit for the choice, and that its a natural progression for technological advancement within the school in which “everyone has an iPad anyway,” although both he and Decker concede the $2,500 plus to purchase their own might be out of reach.
For now, it is an intriguing addition to the junior high’s technological repertoire, evidenced by eighth-grader Olson’s reasoning in volunteering to assist with the robot.
“Because I thought it was cool,” she said.
Sam Luvisi: 360-537-3935 or email@example.com and @Dw_Sluvisi on Twitter.