For a student dealing with serious health problems, attending school can sometimes be a difficult task.
For Makenna Massi, a student at Owen J. Roberts Middle School, that task has been made a lot easier. Makenna is facing a second bout of leukemia, which restricts her ability to attend classes regularly. However, with the help of her teachers and the Chester County Intermediate Unit, Makenna is able to attend school via the "Perfect Attendant" technology.
"We're not the first building in the district to utilize it but the opportunity presented itself here," explained Corbin Stoltzfus, Owen J. Roberts Middle School assistant principal. "Makenna dealt with cancer when she was in fourth grade, and was diagnosed with cancer again shortly before Christmas. Immediately, in my conversations with her father, he wanted to keep things as normal as possible for her."
The "Perfect Attendant" is offered through the Chester County Intermediate Unit as an innovative solution for students in grades K-12 who may have a restricted setting. The technology allows them full access to their educational program as well as the ability to socialize with friends and classmates. Makenna can command the "Perfect Attendant" to wheel down the hallways to change classes while she is fully engaged in conversation with friends — as if she were physically present.
"This type of technology is being readily used in medical and business contexts because we're recognizing that nothing replaces the value of 'face-to- face' interactions. With a little flexible thinking, we can harness this technology in education to give students the benefit of fully engaging with their peers and teachers," explained Rachel McGlynn, educational consultant for the Chester County Intermediate Unit. "The impact of a student getting to participate so fully via the robot is very moving. When you hear the teacher taking attendance in class, and you hear Makenna say, 'Here!' through the Double robot, you just can't help but smile."
The technology has brought Makenna a few smiles as well. The seventh-grade student says she enjoys being able to control the robot and talk with her friends regularly.
"It's really cool actually. I like that I get to control it around the classroom. I think it's really cool that I get to see all my friends in class and get to talk with them," said Makenna. "My friends think it's really cool. They always ask me if I'm coming into class that day so they can see me."
And her classmates and teachers have not only adjusted to the technology seamlessly, but have embraced it in a variety of ways, according to Owen J. Roberts staff. "The odd thing is, teachers and students, when the robot is rolling itself down the hall, it was like that child was in the hallway," said Paul Sanfrancesco, director of technology for Owen J. Roberts School District. "When a visitor would come to the building, they would be shocked. It's like she's here. It's just part of the day. They wave to her like it's another student in the hallway. They dress the robot up in the kid's favorite shirt or hat. It's personalized."
Still, the idea of a robot in the classroom has been an adjustment for teachers, who say interacting with Makenna through the robot is fascinating and helpful.
"I've never experienced a robot in my room or a 'Double,'" said Sheila Hinkley, Makenna's science teacher at the school. "I find that it's a good thing for Makenna and, I think, for the students in the class. They get to see her, she gets to see them and interact with the classmates and also with me. She gets to see some of my instruction as well. So I think it's kind of helpful to me because I can see her and check in with her."
Stoltzfus explained that the technology will be used for a limited time at the moment until staff can work with Makenna's parents to determine the next best step for her. In the meantime, the robot has been an important addition to helping Makenna stay connected with her school and friends.
"The Perfect Attendant can provide a really vital emotional boost for a student in a challenging situation," said McGlynn in a statement about the robot. "The ability to stay "caught up" with your social world and experience education with your peers is something we can provide to students through this very simple technology. It may seem like a small thing, but especially for an adolescent, this can mean everything."