Edison Middle School in Janesville has a new, part-time student.
Its name is Dr. Evil, and it silently glides down the hallways from class to class. It even sits in class sometimes. And at lunch.
Dr. Evil is a 4-foot-tall, motorized robotic scooter with black and silver wheels and a pole fitted on top with an iPad tablet. The tablet acts as a two-way video conferencing monitor and camera.
The device is not an electronic hallway monitor or secret government surveillance unit—nothing as sinister as its hokey, factory-registered nickname might imply.
Rather, the device is a mobile “telepresence” robot. It was donated earlier this month to the school by Janesville tech firm N1 Critical Technologies.
The machine’s immediate planned use, Edison Principal Jim LeMire said, is to help students who are homebound with illnesses continue to attend school remotely to learn and to stay in touch with classmates.
The device works as a video conferencing screen that can connect students who are home sick to the sights, sounds and discussions going on in their classrooms via their school-issued laptops or tablets.
The robot can be controlled around the school by students from home via wireless technology, and its motorized wheels allow it to travel the hallways from class to class.
The robot can even go to the cafeteria and gym class so students can visit via video chat with their friends even as they’re sick in bed.
LeMire said the device will be especially useful for students who might have chronic illnesses that keep them out of school for weeks or months at a time.
“You would hope you’d never have to use a device like this because it means a kid’s too ill to come to school for a long time. God forbid cancer. But those things do arise,” LeMire said.
“You take a middle school student away from the parts of school that are crucial, which a lot of that is their relationships here, their friends, that part of the environment, and it’s a double whammy. That’s why this (robot) is here. The device will put them in the classroom when they can’t be there physically,” he said.
LeMire said the school is still testing and learning how to use Dr. Evil. It’s a knowledge curve that has included a few Edison students interested in robotics practicing on the device. LeMire said it’s taken the students less time than him to learn to navigate the middle school with the robot and use its video conferencing system.
“These kids are digital natives, so you’d expect that,” he said.
The use of telepresence technology in some workplaces and as assistive learning devices in schools is not brand new, but Edison would be the only school in the Janesville School District so far to have a motorized robot like Dr. Evil in use, LeMire said.
Nate Ellsworth, a co-owner of N1 Critical Technologies, donated Dr. Evil to the school. He said Edison soon might not be the only area school with a telepresence robot in place.
Ellsworth said N1 is working on a program it plans to unveil in spring 2018 that he hopes could use fund-matching between N1 and school districts to bring at least one telepresence robot to every school in Rock County.
Ellsworth, whose company makes and markets uninterruptible power supply equipment for computer systems, bought Dr. Evil from a local Apple product supplier. He’d planned to use the device to stay in touch with co-workers at N1 while he was traveling or home sick.
His son Max, a middle school student who attends Evansville schools, thought of a better use for Dr. Evil. Max and his classmates recently lost a male classmate to cancer.
Nate said Max told him if his classmate had been able to use a robot like Dr. Evil, the student’s last year of life might have been better. The student would at least have been able to see, hear and interact with his friends and teachers every day.
“Before my son’s idea, all I was doing was using it at work to sneak up on people. I was just messing around with it for fun. Obviously it will serve a much better and higher purpose,” Ellsworth said.
LeMire said he “cold called” Ellsworth after reading a local news story about N1 Critical expanding and moving to a new office in downtown Janesville. LeMire said he’d been fishing for a local tech entrepreneur whose experiences and work might inspire students at the school.
LeMire said he got more than that because Ellsworth pitched LeMire the idea of donating Dr. Evil to help students learn and connect with classmates when they can’t come to school.
“It’ll give them a smile, happiness and a sense of belonging that otherwise they might be missing. They won’t be sitting at home, isolated from their friends,” Lemire said.
LeMire said the school plans to work with the district’s information technology department to identify best practices and potential educational uses, but some strategies LeMire and Ellsworth have talked about would include using the device in brainstorming exercises with students who might have emerging interest in robotics.
“I want them to look at it and say, ‘Let’s see what else can happen. How can we enhance use of this device?’ We have some kids that can do some coding and some engineering and solid work. That’s real world,” LeMire said.
Ellsworth said as a child, he had a hard time learning. He said school at times felt to him like a set of predefined limits to what he could do.
He said the goal for donating the robots might be to give students homebound with illness a portal to learning. But he hopes the device supplies a window to students for open-ended, creative thinking.
“It’s more and more important every day that we get these kids interested in something, somehow, right now. If you have programs like this and you have principals and teachers who care, there are no limits,” Ellsworth said.
“If I can play a little part in that kind of relationship, I’ll support it. Wherever it goes.”