Robot makes school a (virtual) reality for Oak-Land student

March 30, 2017

Sixth grader Molly Gilbert likely has spent more time at doctors’ offices and in hospital beds than she has in a classroom. Molly suffers from a rare gastrointestinal condition that has resulted in numerous surgeries and debilitating symptoms. For the past several years, much of her education has occurred online because attending school had been too difficult.

But that all changed a few weeks ago when her family teamed up with district teachers and staff to bring a virtual Molly into the classroom at Oak-Land Junior High.

“In today's world technology is all around us, and students benefit from very simple to very complex technology,” said Sally Poesch, Physical/Health Disabilties Teacher. “Having the opportunity to borrow the VGo from the PACER Simon Technology Center has been wonderful as we have been able to experience first-hand its benefits!”  

Using a VGo robot, Molly is able to replicate herself from her own home and have the freedom to move around the classroom as if she were physically there. With VGo, Molly can see and hear what is going on in the classroom, as well as be able to talk and interact with her teachers and classmates.

“It’s cool and a new experience,’ said Ethan Bernier, one of Molly’s classmates. “It has helped her to be a part of class. She hasn’t been here in person more than a few days, but [with the robot] it’s more like she’s just a normal student.”

Like most middle school students, being “normal” is important to Molly. With her attendance sporadic at best, she feels very disconnected from her teachers, her peers, and the lessons being taught. After missing nearly all of second through sixth grade, the thought of going to school in person makes her anxious. While she can keep up with her academics online and with help from a homebound teacher, the personal connections and socialization that make up so much of a school day cannot be replicated.

“The longer she’s been out of school the harder it is to get back in,” said Cindy Gilbert, Molly’s mother. “She’s a very bright student and does well academically, but the social and emotional transition is what I am most concerned about. I saw this VGo robot online and I did my research. I just knew how much this would benefit Molly and other kids with chronic illness.”

The VGo robot is helping Molly connect with classmates in real time. She is currently attending two classes a day at Oak-Land with the help of the robot, which has been dubbed “Gilbot”  (a combination of Gilbert and robot) by her classmate and friend Bella Navarro. During second and third period most days, you’ll find Gilbot parked at a table working collaboratively with peers on a project or see it driving across the classroom to take part in a group activity.

“I was nervous the first day,” Molly admitted. “Everyone is looking at you like an object - well you are an object because you’re a robot - but it was really scary to connect that first time. Every day it gets easier.”

Molly can control the robot from the screen of her tablet at home. She can maneuver around a classroom, and with a bit of assistance from a classmate, can even make her way down the hallway between classes. Classmates help troubleshoot and problem solve when there is a glitch or the robot freezes up, and they’re also willing to help guide the robot around obstacles like tables and chairs.

“It is so fun to watch the students interact with Molly through the VGo,” said Corrie Christensen, Molly’s science teacher. “Students have so many different needs, and there are so many ways they can work together. It is teaching them compassion and patience. The robot also really ties in what they’re already learning about robotics and technology in a very real and tangible way.”

While it might have been a bit out of place at first, the VGo robot is now a normal part of the day and Molly is just another one of the students in the classroom. She drives the robot off of its docking station at the start of the period and makes her way into the classroom, being greeted by other students as if she were standing there in person. Before class starts she is often drawn into a conversation with classmates, and once the teacher starts the lesson she is fully engaged in learning.

“I think it’s pretty cool to be able to join a class like this,” Molly said.  “Hopefully other schools can start doing it so people don’t feel so left out.”

"I give so much credit to the teachers and staff for their willingness to help, " Cindy Gilbert added.  "We have discussed how we want to make (remote learning) work so other kids with medical conditions don't have to go through the gaps in their education and the disconnect from friends that Molly has gone through."