No more bubble boys

Human-robot interaction may have been occurring a long time ago, but until now we've seen few practical uses for robotics in education. A new project aimed at connecting bed-ridden students to their classmates is now taking the first steps. Using PEBBLES (known to its creators as Providing Education by Bringing Learning Environments to Students) technology, a student who is either hospitalized or confined to her home can participate in class via a remotely controlled, life-like robot in the classroom. Third-grader Jerilyn McLean, who was diagnosed in 2005 with aplastic anemia, is the latest student to use PEBBLES. Via an audio/video feed, McLean's face appears as the robot's, allowing her to participate in class discussions. She also uses a joystick to make her robot perform everyday classroom actions like hunching over an exam, answering the teacher's questions, and, we suspect, passing notes if not throwing spit-balls. Fellow third-grader Kendal McGowan marvels at how PEBBLES eliminates what she previously thought were insurmountable geographic and social barriers to long-distance learning: "It's really fun, because she [McLean] can learn with us." Fortunately, McLean recovered from her illness; sadly, she now has to attend school in human form.

"iStudent," by Karen Campbell, Boston Globe, January 22, 2007

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