Robot provides a human touch

Colton looks on as his project partners, Zachary Phillips and Gabi Sibayan, get to work as teacher Rod Just oversees the operation.
Colton looks on as his project partners, Zachary Phillips and Gabi Sibayan, get to work as teacher Rod Just oversees the operation.
People often say they can’t be in two places at once, but that hasn’t been the case for Colton Rempel for the past few weeks.

Colton has been participating with his classmates at Hillsboro Elementary School even as he undergoes cancer treatments miles away in a Kansas City hospital.

When Colton feels well enough to make the effort, he shows up in class via an increasingly popular technology called a double robot.

Not only can Colton see his and hear his classmates, they can talk to each other as if he standing next to them.

The mobility of the robot enables Colton to roll up right next to his friends’ desks, or even drive down the hallway with them to the next class—all thanks to the double robot, an iPad and a cell phone.

“At first, the students were so excited that it was hard to not look at the robot all the time to see if Colton was logged on,” said Maura Wiebe, one of Colton’s teacher.

“They were also standing too close to it and watching so much that when Colton tried to drive it, he would bump into them. Now, they are used to it and let him participate like he’s part of the classroom.”

The technology has been in use only the last two weeks or so.

“Last week, most days he came on for only the last 30 minutes of the day, but once, and again today, he appears during the afternoon classes to participate,” Wiebe said. “Treatments are in the morning, so it’s only been afternoon.”

She said Robert and Sara Rempel, Colton’s parents, have been excited about this connection because Colton really misses the social aspect of school.

“They, like me, were a little hesitant because this age group of kids can get pretty excited about something new like this, and sometimes distracting,” Wiebe said. “I think this is a great trial run for the future.

Existing technology

HES principal Evan Yoder first heard about a double robot from his wife, Becki, who works in a nursing home in Mound­ridge that uses one.

Yoder then visited with Max Heinrichs, USD 410 superintendent, about the possibility of taking advantage of the new technology at school.

As it turned out, Hein­richs was well aware of the technology, having presented it to schools and other organizations while he was employed by ESSDACK, based in Hutchinson.

ourth-grader Colton Rempel joins Rod Just’s science class with the help of the double robot acquired by USD 410. Though the robot looks like it could tip over easily, Superintendent Max Heinrichs says it’s nearly impossible to do so with reasonable use.
ourth-grader Colton Rempel joins Rod Just’s science class with the help of the double robot acquired by USD 410. Though the robot looks like it could tip over easily, Superintendent Max Heinrichs says it’s nearly impossible to do so with reasonable use.

“It’s a pretty neat item, and we’ve used it in many schools while I was ESSDACK,” he said. “I probably sold 10 to 12 in different states where we presented. I’m embarrassed that I didn’t think of it sooner, but give Evan the credit.”

Heinrichs believes “tele-presence” can be useful in a variety of educational settings, not the least of which are the school board meetings he leads as superintendent. It’s not unusual for a board member to be out of town when the board meets.

“We often have them joining us by phone, which is a tele-presence too,” he said. “But we could have a board member loaded on their phone, and we could see his or her face. All you have to do is download an app to your phone and it’s ready to go.”

A double robot, which costs around $1,500, looks vulnerable to being knocked over, but Heinrichs said it’s almost impossible to do so.

Now that Colton has completed his recent series of treatments, the robot can be used for other situations—at least for now.

“We won’t be using it much for him the rest of this year, but when another student is gone for an extended amount of time, and can’t attend school, this will be a great tool,” Wiebe said.

“The only issue we’ve had to deal with is sound. Some­times we can’t hear Colton because his microphone is too far away from him, or it’s too noisy in the classroom.

“But I think it’s a very nice piece of technology that will connect students to the classroom.”