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Achim Nurse, 13, of Brooklyn listens during an eighth grade social studies class from his bed at the Blythedale Children's Hospital in Valhalla, New York, on Thursday, May 18, 2006.
Achim Nurse, 13, of Brooklyn listens during an eighth grade social studies class from his bed at the Blythedale Children's Hospital in Valhalla, New York, on Thursday, May 18, 2006.
(Photo: Karen Vibert-Kennedy/AP Wide World)

Robots in Class
By Alexandra Cale

May 31, 2006—Over 600,000 children across the country require long-term hospital care each year. Many of them report having difficulty returning back to school after hospital stays. Thanks to technology, kids who are sick in the hospital no longer have to miss time in the classroom.

A program called PEBBLES makes it possible for kids in hospitals to participate in classroom discussions—via robot. PEBBLES (Providing Education By Bringing Learning Environments to Students) supplies robots to help hospitalized kids keep up with their schoolwork.

For Achim Nurse, a bedridden 13-year-old at Blythedale Children's Hospital in Valhalla, New York, PEBBLES has made it possible for him to keep up with the rest of his class. When he first learned about the program, though, he wasn't so sure it would work.

"I was out of my mind saying, 'A robot?'" said Achim. "When I first saw it, it looked difficult."

However, after 30 minutes of working with the robot—"Mr. Spike"—Achim discovered that he had gotten pretty good at operating it.

"It's like a video game," he said. "But the only thing is you have to go to school."

The robots work in pairs—one in the hospital with the student, and the other in the classroom. The robot in the classroom gives the student in the hospital "telepresence," allowing him to feel involved with the class through a kind of video conferencing. A live picture of the student is shown on a video screen in the classroom. Meanwhile, back in the hospital room, the student has a clear view of what is going on in the classroom.

The robot positioned at the school has four wheels, so it can move around from class to class. Its "face" is an auto-focus camera that allows the student in the hospital to zoom in on the board. By using a joystick and buttons on a control box, the student can turn the robot's head, raise its hand, and adjust the volume. It even comes equipped with a scanner and printer, so if the teacher hands out an exercise or test in class, the student can participate from the hospital.

"The robot literally is embraced by students in the classroom as though that is the medically fragile student," said Andrew Summa, national director of the robot project.

The robot program, which started in Toronto, Canada, has had such positive results that the U.S. government began funding it in this country. PEBBLES robots are now available in several hospitals.

"I don't know where it's going to go next, but it does have considerable potential," Summa said.

Robot use may be expanded to include keeping suspended students involved in the classroom. Eventually it may even be possible to use robots to work with students who have autism, a disorder that affects communication and social interaction.


The Pebbles Project
To learn more about the Pebbles Project visit the official Web site.

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