Robot helps homebound students

Deborah Prescott | Daily Press A group gathered at the Escanaba Upper Elementary school recently for a demonstration of a robot called “MoBot.” With the help of donors, Escanaba was able to purchase the robot for homebound students to use to have real time classroom interaction. MoBot is in a pilot stage at the school. Shown are, from left, Robert Viau, Escanaba schools director of technology; Coby Fletcher, Escanaba school superintendent; Craig LeClaire, EUE principal: Paul Harvey, Engineered Machined Products vice president; “MoBot” Harlee Coolman; Melissa Bonifas-Ness, owner and agent at Bonifas Ness Meemic Agency; Rena Richtig, Escanaba Rotary Club; Paula Morrison, EUE social worker; and Julie Cass, Escanaba school nurse. Unable to be in the picture was donor Lucy Lauzon, president of the Youth Assistance Program.

ESCANABA — Students in the Escanaba Area Public Schools will start to see an additional “student” roaming the hallways soon. MoBot is making its way up and down the hall at the Escanaba Upper Elementary and into classrooms this spring.

The ultimate exclusion a child can face while sick or injured is to be away from their classmates. MoBot — a robot — will allow a child to be part of the class when they cannot physically be in the classroom and help keep the student from falling behind in their studies.

Educators from EAPS knew they needed a robot to aid students who were unable to participate in class. Thanks to four local organizations, the school achieved its goal.

Lacy Lauzon, president of the Youth Assistance Program; Paul Harvey, vice president at Engineered Machined Products; Rena Richtig of the Escanaba Rotary Club; and Melissa Bonifas-Ness, owner and agent of Bonifas Ness MEEMIC Agency; all affiliated with the groups and businesses that donated funds for MoBot.

“Two educators from Escanaba schools presented the idea to our club at a weekly meeting. We were amazed with the technology and how that could help students so that they wouldn’t fall behind. It was obvious these folks did some solid research as well,” said Rena Richtig of the Escanaba Rotary Club. “As a former teacher, principal and university professor, I saw this as having multiple uses. Board members felt the same way. The request for funding passed without issue.”

MoBot will be used for homebound or hospitalized students, or students at home for other reasons that may cause them to fall behind in school.

“The addition of MoBot will allow the district to better serve students with needs beyond their control that keep them away from school for extended periods of time,” said EAPS Superintendent Coby Fletcher. “I’m extremely grateful to the staff members who spearheaded this effort and for the generous donations from businesses and organizations within our community that allowed us to make this a reality. We’re fortunate to be surrounded by so many caring people.”

MoBot looks like a Segway with an IPad interface and comes from a company called Double Robotics. It has a “sitting,” or resting height of 47 inches and can raise to a ‘standing’ height of 60 inches. When a student has a question in class they can make MoBot rise instead of raising a hand like the other children in class.

MoBot has a lateral stability control that keeps it upright and able to roll over common classroom obstacles, such as cords and thresholds. To enable the student to see where MoBot is going and navigate through the halls and classrooms, an IPad is positioned on top of the robot. The IPad uses WiFi to communicate back to the student what is going on around the robot. MoBot is navigated by the use of the keyboard on a computer with the student. Sign Up donated MoBot’s t-shirt. The t-shirt gives MoBot a little more personality.

Robert Viau, director of technology for the EAPS, knows that MoBot is a great asset to the school system, but it is in it’s pilot stage.

“There are some areas of the school where WifFi isn’t strong enough and MoBot doesn’t receive a signal,” said Viau. “It’ll flicker and continue or the screen will go black, stop and we have to locate it.”

Viau believes these areas will be fixed and in the next school year MoBot’s blackouts will not continue.

“MoBot is pretty much ready to go,” he said.

Before navigating MoBot, students in need will train at the school until they are comfortable directing the robot through the school. Traci Pinar’s fifth grade class is part of testing how MoBot works in the classroom setting. Student Harlee Coolman has become very adept at navigating MoBot through the school.

“Harlee immediately took to navigating MoBot,” said Paula Morrison, EUE social worker.

The school district will allow students currently needing this service to share MoBot. They will be able to sign in and navigate it individually away from school.

“One of the main reason’s I opened this Meemic Agency was that it would allow me money to invest back into the educational system here. I have many teachers who are friends and I know how they have to make due with little and are always up against lack of funding,” said Bonifas-Ness. “Teachers are amazing and so under-appreciated.”

When Bonifas-Ness was approached with this idea she had no problem supporting it.


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