For students stuck in the hospital, a robotic solution

Kids with long-term illnesses have to deal with a lot of challenges. One of them is being left behind by the time they get back to school. But what if there was someone who could be be your stand-in until you got better? How about your own personal .... robot?!

Kids with long-term illnesses have to deal with a lot of challenges. One of them is being left behind by the time they get back to school. But what if there was someone who could be be your stand-in until you got better? How about your own personal .... robot?!

A Canadian company called Telbotics in cooperation with Ryerson University and the University of Toronto have developed a new application of assistive robotic technology to help bedridden or homebound students, eSchool News reports.

The PEBBLES project consists of two robots which work in pairs - one in the hospital and one in the classroom. Each transmits video, audio and document to each other. The head is a monitor which can swivel and the body is on wheels and can move about the room via a control panel. It even has a hand that can be raised to ask a question. It isn't long before the robot in the classroom is treated like the real student.

"The robot literally is embraced by students in the classroom as though [it] is the medically fragile student," said Andrew Summa, national director of the robot project, which is in use at six other hospitals around the country.

The program could have potential for all kinds of educational applications where students cannot attend a real classroom such as prisoners, scientists working in remote location and treating autism. "I don't know where it's going to go next, but it does have considerable potential," Summa said.

Achim Nurse is a 13-year-old kid who is bedridden and uses the robots to keep up.

The one at Achim's bedside displayed a live picture of the social studies classroom. Achim could see Langerfield, his desk, the board, a map of the United States, and the clock. He could hear Langerfield saying, "From 1830 to 1860 New York City grew at an astounding rate."

The second robot was in the back of the classroom, its "face" (and autofocus camera) aimed at the teacher. Its display showed Achim in his bed.

"If he's looking out the window, the teacher will know it," said Jim DeSimone, who is the traumatic brain injury coordinator at Blythedale and the school's "robot guy."

Using the buttons and a joystick on the control box, Achim could zoom in to read what was on the board; swivel the robot's head to see and talk to a classmate; raise the robot's hand; adjust the volume; or log out, if a nurse came to take him away for tests or physical therapy.

At one point, when the teacher wanted Achim to see something printed on a piece of paper, he held it up to the classroom robot's "face."

Since the robots communicate over the Internet, students can continue their education no matter where in the world their hospitals are.
"You can have a child hospitalized in New York City, and his classroom can be in New Zealand," Summa said. "We can connect any two points around the world."

The robot system was developed in Toronto by Telbotics Inc. along with Ryerson University and the University of Toronto. It is managed in the United States by The Learning Collaborative Inc., under a federal grant. The 40 robots now in use are on loan to the hospitals, although Summa said they are available for sale at about $70,000 a pair.

Summa said one student used a robot so fully that the robot joined the boy's classmates to sing a song at a school show. He said a child in the audience asked, "What's that thing up on stage?" to which a friend of the student replied, "That's no thing. That's Jimmy."

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