School Robots Are Making Education For Severely Sick Kids Possible

School robots are invaluable tools for students who need them.

School robots are invaluable tools for students who need them.

Come with me on a ride on the sitcom way-back machine. The year is 2010 and the show is The Big Bang Theory. Lovably awkward physicist Sheldon has decided to increase his longevity by keeping his physical self home and instead sending a robot version of himself out into the world. The robot has a computer with a monitor for a head, enabling him to basically interact with others via videoconference.

Ha ha, funny, funny, right? Great idea for a tv plot, right? No real world applications, right?

Wrong. So, so, very wrong. Wrong — but in a good way.

See, here’s the story: My good friend Carrie* has a son named Randy* with food allergies. This kid literally has the most severe set of allergies you can imagine. He reacts to a host of foods, but the two big ones are nuts and dairy. And it’s not just a case of reacting if he ingests nuts or dairy; his allergies are topical.

If he touches so much as residue of milk or dairy, he could have a potentially life-threatening anaphylactic reaction.

Obviously, Carrie has to take unusual precautions for her son. This is not a kid who can interact with the world in a typical way. They’ve spent 11 years slowly and cautiously finding spaces that are safe for him and making unsafe spaces safer. For example, he can go to movies in a movie theater, but they bring sheets from home to drape over the chairs so he doesn’t come into contact with food residue left from other patrons. Swimming pools are a-ok, because they’re food free. Five Guys Burgers and Fries? They just drive on by that bastion of peanut oil-soaked goodness.


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One space that has never been able to be safe enough for Randy is school. A nut-free table in a cafeteria won’t cut it for him. Every door knob, every desk, every book in the library is a potential host for a substance that could trigger a reaction. There was just no way to mitigate the risk. As a result, Randy is 11 and has been homeschooled all his life. The family makes the best of it, but Randy is a gregarious guy. He’d do well in an environment with peers. They’ve been trying to figure out a way for him to participate in school safely for several years now, and solutions kept evading them.

Enter Sheldon’s robot.

Carrie discovered that their county has an actual remote control robot with an iPad head that could attend school physically while Randy participates on video! He can FaceTime with middle school — literally!

Randy’s mom is just delighted to open her son’s horizons at long last. While he hasn't been totally isolated up until now, his orbit has been fairly small.

The way the robot works is that it has a mobile base that looks kind of like a Segway, only there’s an iPad where the handlebars would be. The robot is controlled via app on a laptop, phone, or tablet that the student uses to link remotely. The student can move the robot from class to class, FaceTimeing the entire time if he or she likes. That way the kid can get the academic part of school and the gossiping-in-the-hall-between-classes part as well.

Their county already has one such robot in use. There’s a student in one of the high schools who is undergoing treatment for a serious illness and has to miss a lot of school. On days when he’s prevented from attending, he can use the robot to keep up. An article I just saw about school robots in another district mentioned a student using the robot on days she has dialysis.

These robots are invaluable tools for students who need them part time and also for students like Randy, for whom they’re the only path to the classroom.

The robot costs about $3,600, according to the article. While that's no small investment for a school district, it can really be a priceless opportunity for a student otherwise unable to attend school.

Randy is excited about the chance to try this system out. He’s even joked about rigging a green screen in his room so he can superimpose different backgrounds behind him. Make it look like he’s beaming into school from a beach or the surface of the moon. Randy might be kind of a wise-ass. So he’ll fit right in at middle school.

Randy’s mom is just delighted to open her son’s horizons at long last. While he hasn't been totally isolated up until now, his orbit has been fairly small.

“I can teach him academics,” she says. “But I can’t teach him the social stuff. Technology is so cool. I thought he wouldn’t have the same opportunities as other kids but now he gets a robot.”

Science fiction is fact, friends. In the best way possible.

*Names have been changed 


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