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Baylor using robot to aid school districts

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WACO - A sleek white remotely-controlled robot soon will be used by Baylor University Libraries to enrich future curriculum for children in grades K-12 across Texas and perhaps the nation.

 The VGo robot will be demonstrated by staffers from Baylor University Libraries at an area education summit in Waco on Thursday, Nov. 17.

 Funding for cultural aspects of education has been cut drastically in many public schools, but "cultural experiences are very important to a child's education. We'd like to see that restored," said Pattie Orr, vice president for information technology and dean of University Libraries at Baylor.

Baylor has committed to purchase a VGo robot, a four-foot-tall device which allows a user to see through its camera, hear through its microphone and interact through its speakers. Rather than simply providing a virtual tour of museums, art galleries and libraries, it can deliver instruction to schools by making conversation possible between the user — who directs it remotely with a computer mouse — and those at a different site, who can view the user on the robot's screen, said Tim Logan, assistant vice president of the Electronic Library at Baylor University.

 "This is a new and different use for the VGo," said John Nye, vice president of sales and business development for New Hampshire-based VGo Communications Inc. The robot currently is used by businesses and for enabling students with disabilities or immune-deficiencies to attend school without leaving home.

The VGo will make its Waco debut at "Designing Our Future," the Greater Waco Community Education Alliance Summit, at Waco Convention Center, with presentations on Thursday by Orr and John Korb, a distance learning and advanced applications specialist with Texas Education Telecommunications Network.

Baylor, Education Service Center Region 12 and the Texas Education Telecommunications Network are exploring how best to use the VGo to enrich learning for school districts.

"We're planning to provide content and services from Baylor, but the robot could be used in various venues," Logan said. "Our ideas for Baylor locations include virtual tours of Armstrong Browning Library, The Texas Collection and possibly Mayborn Museum Complex, for starters. The robot could provide access to resources that many schools don't have."

One highlight would be a "Pied Piper" tour at Armstrong Browning, featuring such library treasures as illustrations inspired by poet Robert Browning's poem "The Pied Piper of Hamelin" and a stained-glass window with an image of the tale. (See photo.)

"We've got the technology, the places and the partners, but now we're looking forward to program content," he said. "We're optimistic we can deliver unique material. For this to work, it really needs to be matched up with educational goal elements for the STAAR (State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness) test and specific curricular goals."

Besides having wireless video-conferencing capability, the robot can be guided from room to room by the user. It integrates a camera, microphones and video display on a light-weight, motorized, remote-controlled platform.

"The user can see and be seen, hear and be heard," Logan said. "It pivots, and the camera can go up and down and zoom in. It can't open doors, punch an elevator button or go down stairs, but it has sensors to prevent it from going off the edge of steps or bumping into a wall. 

"From a social and psychological standpoint, it's amazing," he said.

Virginia DuPuy, executive director of Greater Waco Community Education Alliance, predicted children will be delighted.

"I tend to personalize, and I see this as a little fellow you can talk to and see some of the amazing resources at Baylor, like its libraries and museums," she said. "The potential is huge for classrooms and homebound children. When I learned that the (remote) attendee can ask questions and direct the robot, I thought, ‘This is so much more live and direct than Skype and videoconferencing. This is tremendous.'"

Teachers would need special software to connect to it — perhaps through a pre configured laptop — as well as a camera for the connecting computer and a computer projector or large screen for group viewing, Logan said.

"Baylor is working to develop a portable pre-set ‘laptop in a bag' or a ‘network in a bag' to make it easy for our classroom partners to connect with our robot," Orr said.

The presentation — "Reading, Writing, and Robots: Using remote-control video conferencing for instructional enrichment" —will be given from 1:45 to 3 p.m. and also from 3:15 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. Thursday at Waco Convention Center, 100 Washington Ave., in Room South 118. The summit, which is open to the public, takes place from Wednesday, Nov. 16, through Friday, Nov. 18. Cost is $35 for Wednesday night, $25 for Thursday and $5 for Friday.

For more information about the summit or to register, call (254) 741-0081. On-site registration also will be available.

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