Kayla Kemp apologizes for the state of her iPad screen, the plastic splintering from being dropped. When she wakes it up, the screen shows a plain, concrete wall. “I’m in the closet,” Kemp, a Westlake High School senior, said. “They come and get me when it’s time for class.”
It’s quiet, but then after a minute or two, “I can hear people,” she said, the screen on the iPad lightening as the closet door swings up and her statistics teacher Craig Heath greets her, “Hi, Kayla. Do you want to take yourself or do you want me to carry you?”
Free of the hallway closet confines, Kemp chooses to maneuver herself to the classroom. Settled on the couch in her Waldorf living room with a stack of textbooks beside her, Kemp is waiting for Advanced Placement statistics to start. Cahill, the robot she controls via an app on her personal iPad, allows her to roll down the school’s hallway. Students dodge out of her way, ignore her or say “Hi, Kayla” as she motors by, the base of the robot resembling a miniature Segway.
Other students, still giddy by the idea of a peer attending class via telepresence, follow her to Heath’s room and take photos of the robot — an iPad, with Kemp’s face on the screen, perched on an adjustable pole. “They’re not even in this class,” Kemp said, watching the laughing photographers turn and leave.
Kemp is piloting the robot program after a broken ankle landed her at home during the back end of her senior year; as a walker, she had no easy way to get to school everyday. While arranging her schedule, a home and hospital instructor could be found for her other subjects, but locating a statistics tutor proved tricky.
“When students are unable to attend school, they often become disconnected with what is going on in their classes, even if they are given assignments to complete at home,” said Superintendent of Schools Kimberly Hill. “In Charles County Public Schools we believe in the importance of relationships.”
About a month ago, Hill was shown a virtual demonstration of a Double Robotics telepresence robot. The devices launched in 2012 and were originally designed to allow telecommuters and remote workers to have a physical presence in the office, said Sara Broyles, communications lead for Double Robotics. “But its use has since expanded to education and healthcare,” she said. The California-based company has sold more than 6,000 Doubles worldwide with about 2,000 being used in schools, Broyles said.
Seeing the positive implications it could have for students — especially those under home and hospital instruction — Hill said she would like Charles County Public Schools (CCPS) to test a program. In 2015, a Poolesville elementary school used a similar robot to allow a fifth grader to attend class while undergoing treatment for cancer. Pete Cevenini, chief of instructional technology for CCPS, foresees the school system using the devices in a similar way.
So far, so good if Kemp’s case proves standard. “I think it’s going to be more and more common to hear about,” Cevenini said. He added that although Kemp only attends one class using Cahill, other students could potentially use it to attend school all day while enrolled in home and hospital instruction. All a student will need is a way to connect to the app through a phone, tablet or computer from their home or a hospital. Cevenini said after the robot arrived it took about two hours to get up and rolling. Getting other students used to it took a bit longer.
“It took a couple of days for students to adjust to having the robot here,” Heath said. “But after that, it’s been pretty smooth.”
“At first, it blew my mind,” said senior Jalin Thomas. “But you get used to it.” Ben Booker, a classmate of Kemp’s agreed. “It was kind of surprising,” he said. “We weren’t expecting it.”
Now classmates have no problem telling Kemp to fix her screen when they only see the top of her head. “You look like a potato,” her friend Efeohe Suleman joked. Later, when Kemp is moving the robot around the table her friends have taken over among a smattering of books, papers and a lone baseball glove, Suleman admits that not everyone has the opportunity to share a textbook with a robot. “I think it’s funny,” she said, watching Kemp complete a three-point turn after getting stuck in a corner. “It’s cool as well.”
“Technology will never replace great teaching,” Hill said. “But in this case, in certainly enhances our ability to meet the needs of our students.”
Charles County Public Schools provides 26,300 students in grades prekindergarten through 12 with an academically challenging education. Located in Southern Maryland, Charles County Public Schools has 36 schools that offer a technologically advanced, progressive and high quality education that builds character, equips for leadership and prepares students for life, careers and higher education.
The Charles County public school system does not discriminate on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, age or disability in its programs, activities or employment practices. For inquiries, please contact Dr. Patricia Vaira, Title IX/ADA/Section 504 Coordinator (students) or Pamela K. Murphy, Title IX/ADA/Section 504 coordinator (employees/ adults), at Charles County Public Schools, Jesse L. Starkey Administration Building, P.O. Box 2770, La Plata, MD 20646; 301-932-6610/301-870-3814. For special accommodations call 301-934-7230 or TDD 1-800-735-2258 two weeks prior to the event.