Monday, January 16, 2017

Mullica School's New Robot

MULLICA TOWNSHIP — Andrew Weber remembers when he was a principal in Absecon and one of his students missed a lot of school because of illness.
“They lose that connection with their peers,” he said.
So when he heard about the Double, a remote-controlled telepresence robot, Weber jumped on the opportunity to connect a home-bound student to the Mullica Township School, where he is now the superintendent.

The Double arrived just before the holiday break, and Weber and technology coordinator Mike Irwin are putting it through its paces, testing it around the school and making sure there are enough wireless access points that the unit never loses its connection.

“We have a wireless access port in every classroom, which we added for the PARCC testing,” Irwin said. “But we’ll have to add a couple in hallways.”

Even for students used to technology, the Double is something new. Basically an iPad stuck on top of a rolling stick, the robot is “dressed” in a Mullica Coyote t-shirt. Staff has taken to calling it “Sheldon” after the character in the TV show “Big Bang Theory.”

“How fast can it go?” William Ishee, 12, asked Weber as he followed it down a hallway. Asked for his opinion, Ishee called the unit “pretty cool” but “also a little creepy.”

At a moderate 2 miles per hour, the Double headed into the cafeteria, where students waved at Weber’s face on the iPad and crowded around to get a closer look. The height of the unit can be adjusted, and Weber keeps at a child-size level.

“I would want to use it,” said second grader Kylie Englehardt, 8. “You can see people in it.”
The unit cost $3,500 including a three-year warranty and was funded through a grant, Weber said.

Sara Broyles, communications manager with Double Robotics, said in an email that since launching in 2012 they have sold 8,000 Doubles worldwide, about 2,000 of them for use in education at both the K-12 and university level. The most common use in schools is for home-bound students, and the company’s web site includes video testimony from students who have used them.

Mullica Township has not assigned the Double to a student yet, though Weber said several students have volunteered to be sick so they could stay home and use it.

Teacher Dana O’Hare said she has a student this year who misses a lot of days due to illness and would be an ideal candidate for the Double. She said she would welcome it in her class.
“We can send the work home to the student,” she said. “But it’s not the same as being here. This would be fantastic.

Weber said once assigned, the student will be given a chromebook with password access to the system, which can also be operated with a smart phone app. The student would control the Double during the school day, though a student “buddy” would also be assigned to stay with it in the hallways.

Irwin said the unit has a battery life of about eight hours, then would recharge overnight. He has primary access and would activate it each day.

Weber said the unit is better than using Skype or a similar communication system because it is mobile, and the student can control it rather than having to rely on someone inside the classroom.

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