Robot is school link for homebound Escanaba student

MoBot travels the hall at Escanaba High School under the control of junior Carson Norton. Norton will have surgery the end of January to add steel rods to his back. The Escanaba school district received MoBot in April for students who were homebound and unable to attend classes. Through MoBot, Norton is able to attend real-time classes, pep rallies, lab work and other activities in the school building. (Courtesy photo)

ESCANABA — The Escanaba School District acquired a robot last spring that allows homebound students to attend classes in real time. The robot came just in time for one student.

Junior Carson Norton suffers from a condition called Scheuermann’s disease, a developmental disorder of the spine. It causes an abnormal growth of the vertebrae making the upper back appear rounded and hunched over. A normal vertebrae has a disk shape, Norton’s are shaped like triangles.

Norton started the school year participating with his peers in class activities. After a few weeks, it was evident he was in too much pain to focus on his studies while sitting in class. Since then, he has operated MoBot, a robot that allows him to navigate the school and go to class virtually from his home.

“We were hoping he wouldn’t have to use MoBot until right before the surgery,” said Escanaba school counselor Liz Schlenvogt. “…It became harder and harder for him to sit.”

He will have surgery Jan. 31. He noted recovery will take two months, a year for full recovery.

Norton learned within 30 minutes how to drive MoBot. He practiced navigating it up and down hallways in the high school after hours.

Norton’s math teacher, Brent Sauve, houses MoBot when it is not in use.

“I really haven’t had to change much. I just make sure there is a spot where he can see the board and hear the lessons,” said Sauve. “He can ask questions and hear the lesson as it is given. Other students have been very receptive to have the robot in the classroom. At first it was somewhat of a curiosity, but after a few days, it really became normal.”

Norton likes being able to be involved in classes, and to listen and see what is being taught. He doesn’t ask questions during class because he feels he could be a distraction.

“The teacher asks me if I have questions … at the end of school,” said Norton. “It’s just easier to do that instead of finding someway to ask them a question during class.”

The first day, teachers found a place for Norton to park MoBot in each classroom.

“It’s also just kinda cool to have a robot to drive around school,” he said.

MoBot looks like a Segway with an IPad positioned on top. The IPad uses WiFi to communicate back to the student and is navigated by the use of a computer provided by the school. It lowers to 47 inches and raises to 60 inches high. MoBot has a lateral stability control that keeps the robot upright, and it is able to roll over small, common classroom obstacles.

MoBot was given to the school through donations by Bonifas Ness MEEMIC Agency, Engineered Machine Products, Escanaba Rotary Club, and the Youth Assistance Program.

“This was a different year for us,” said Schlenvogt. “We had more instances come up where having a MoBot was needed, and MoBot was originally arranged for a different situation last year, but wasn’t actually put into use.”

There are a few challenges. MoBot was originally tested in the Upper Elementary building. In both locations, there are areas where signal strength is low low. The hallway can be hard to navigate with it is full of students standing around, according to Norton.

“It’s kinda hard to see where everybody is, and I wish it wouldn’t disconnect from the internet,” said Norton. “Otherwise I wouldn’t change much about it, because it’s pretty good.”

Escanaba has a Homebound Program In addition to MoBot. In the program, a teacher goes to a student’s home to administer quizzes, tests, and provide follow up. Sauve is Norton’s homebound teacher.

Schlenvogt has seen many benefits in MoBot.

“We guide MoBot, Carson, through the hall at different times … the kids were initially in awe of MoBot, now they know it’s Carson, they wave … they all want to say hi to MoBot and they want to say hi to Carson,” said Schlenvogt. “They’re almost seen like two different people. The students want to interact with Carson and MoBot, and it makes the students and Carson smile.”

MoBot has given Norton the opportunity to feel like a student involved with his peers in school.

“To have to be home because you can’t be where you want to be is a kicker. MoBot allows him to watch a lab experiment and ask, ‘Why is it bubbling?’ He cannot smell it, but he can still see what’s going on,” said Schlenvogt. “He can still see his peers in class, interact with what’s going on, or watch the pep assembly … MoBot allows Carson to be where he couldn’t otherwise be. He gets to have some real-time connection with people.”