Second-grader Joseph Lazarewicz practices spelling with classmates and participates in group projects in class — all from the comfort of his hospital bed.

Lazarewicz, who is recovering from a rare form of cancer called Burkitt’s Lymphoma, cannot physically attend classes, but joins classroom activities and interacts with his teacher in real time via a robot, affectionately dubbed “Jobot,”

“The (robot) allows Joseph, wherever he may be, to interface and be physically in the classroom through his double,” said Nicole Sondalle, communication specialist of the Sheboygan Area School District. “It allows him to keep up not only academically, but socially as well. He can really connect with his peers, which is great.”

The device, which resembles an iPad attached to a small Segway-like base, displays his face and allows Lazarewicz to interact with his peers as if he was in the classroom himself.

Two of the devices were purchased by the school district from the California-based company Double Robotics, which specializes in “telepresence” robots. The robot, called a Double, includes a wide-angle camera, speaker, and microphone, which enable Lazarewicz to hear and interact with the environment from his home or hospital bed.

“One of the days I was in there they were growing plants. Joe was able to maneuver over to the window, and lowered the device so he could see how his plant was doing,” said Michael Jaber, coordinator of instructional technology at the school district. “He’s actively involved in class, which is really cool.”

SASD is one of the few districts in Wisconsin to utilize telepresence technology to allow students to attend class virtually.

“Initially, especially at the second grade level, this is pretty high tech for them to see this come into their classroom with one of their classmates on the screen,” Jaber said. “Getting over that initial shock of the piece of technology roaming around. Now it’s pretty much like he’s part of the class.”

Lazarewicz ‘s second grade teacher Karen Rowan-Lieser said students have adapted well to the technology. First introduced in October, the students have now come to think of Jobot as just another student in the class.

“One of the girls was sitting on the chair and working on spelling with Joseph like it was no big deal,” Rowan-Lieser, who teaches at Lincoln-Erdman Elementary School, said. “It just pulls my heart when I see the kids embrace it.”

The robot allows Lazarewicz to keep up with his education, but also provides a sense of normalcy in attending school with his peers.

Lazarewicz controls the robot remotely from a tablet computer from his hospital bed or home. Keyboard arrow keys move the robot around the room —much like the video games Joseph plays, according to his father — and a forward-facing camera projects a live view of Lazarewicz’s face onto the robot in the classroom.

“Like anything it took practice, but he’s a technical kind of guy. The hard part is navigating around obstacles, but even that seems pretty easy for him,” Joseph’s father, Luke, said.

Joseph was diagnosed with Burkitt’s Lymphoma just after kindergarten, missing pretty much his entire first-grade year. With his immune system still recovering from stem cell treatments, Luke said Jobot has been a tremendous help in keeping Joseph socialized with his friends.

“Every child is going to be different and what they need is different,” Rowan-Lieser said. “This is Joseph’s way to really hang on and give him hope that one day he can get back in the classroom and be part of it.”

Joe’s robot gives him freedom to move around on his own and engage in real-time conversations — but it is not without limitations. The robot requires a WiFi signal to operate, which means navigating through WiFi dead-zones can cause a disconnect. And the robot has twice been knocked over accidentally by classmates.

“Obviously pushing buttons or anything where he would have to interact physically with something, he can’t do, but as far as moving where he needs to go and interacting with people, all that functionality is there,” Jaber said. “The technology involved in it amazes me.”

The robot costs about $2,800 and includes a battery pack that can last six to eight hours. When not in use, Joseph docks the robot in a docking station in the corner of the classroom, which charges both the Double and the attached iPad.

Rowan-Lieser said Joseph pops into class “most days” and is sometimes joined by his dog, Mocha, which the kids enjoy.

The educator said when she was initially approached with the idea, she thought having a robot in the room might affect how she teaches, but found she thinks of Jobot the same as any other student in the room.

“It’s another student and you’re meeting his needs in a different manner,” Rowan-Lieser said. “We always try to provide different options for kids and their parents. This is just another option.”

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