There’s a Robot in the Room! How The City of Mesa is Using Robotics for Education and Accessibility

ARTICLE | Oct 13, 2015

1. Describe your innovation – how is Mesa using robotics?  

Our I.D.E.A. Children’s museum and Mesa Public Library are utilizing Double telepresence robots for education and accessibility, bringing participants and educators from anywhere to interact with exhibits and classrooms.

2. What problem or challenge does it address?

Some children experience lengthy visits to local children hospitals and miss out on the everyday engagement with their classroom or that all important field trip.  Libraries and other educational institutions want to bring quality educators into the classroom but may not have the funding to do so.

3. How was the use of robotics originally conceived in Mesa?

The mother of invention is necessity. The idea for using telepresence robots started as a half joke among IT employees working remotely. In the course of researching the idea one employee found Double Robotics, at the time a brand new Silicon Valley startup, who’s Double robot promised to bring this idea down to a price that many people could afford. One of Double’s early promotional videos highlighted people going to a museum via remote robot. In the Phoenix/Mesa metro area we have several large children’s hospitals including one just a few miles from downtown Mesa. A chance conversation with a hospital employee sparked the idea to bring the children’s museum together with the children’s hospital.

While the focus was a proof of concept providing sick children visual engagement and access to locations outside of the hospital, a side need was to explore tangible uses of new technologies and reward the talented staff engaged in those efforts. Our “Idea Market” program where we pledged to provide some startup funds to proofs of concept resulted in a staff member bringing forward this idea about robotics and hospitalized children attending field trips virtually.

4. What makes Mesa’s use of robots uniquely innovative?

While even early uses of telepresence robots were related to education and medicine there weren’t many people bringing the two together. Telepresence is one of those technologies that looks fun and is easy to make fun of. With shows like the Big Bang Theory poking at it, it’s hard to take seriously a person’s face on an iPad, rolling around the office on a stick. It takes a compelling story like children in a hospital, unable to join their class field trip at the museum, to break people out of that thinking and make them realize the huge possibilities this technology brings.

5. How has this innovation changed previous practice and improved the organization?

It was a testament to the compelling nature of this technology that the Library staff experienced the robot and immediately bought one for their use. At the THINKspot, Mesa’s incubator/entrepreneur center at our Red Mountain Library, staff are inviting educators from anywhere and everywhere around the globe to come and teach. The Double is also available for people who have an interest in entrepreneurship or just a cool idea that they want to bring to fruition but who can’t get out to the THINKspot in person. Those people can use the Double to come and socialize, learn, and network to find ways to enable their dream.

In addition to the initial plan with hospitalized children, the I.D.E.A. Children’s Museum staff are using the Double robot to introduce children to a concept of robotics that is real and interactive in people’s daily lives, not just imaginary in science fiction or separated in a faraway factory. Staff and educators are taking the robot on a tour of the museum to encounter children daily.

6. How have you determined its success?  What measurements have you used?

The telepresence robot is still a technology in early adoption. We’ve gauged its success by the reactions to it and their changing tones over the months since we obtained the first robots. They’ve changed from initial reactions of, “Hey you’re like Sheldon in Big Bang Theory,” to, “We need to find grants to bring more of these and push forward with the children’s hospital program.”

7. What does the future of the robotics program hold?

The pilot has been a proof of concept to obtain future grant funds for exploration and improvement. The pilot is providing a good understanding under what conditions the robot functions well, and how to address needs and shortcomings of the original model. The more we expose others to the Double, the more ideas that are uncovered for its use.

The primary challenge we found in the original idea wasn’t technical at all, it was finding and coordinating with educators willing to take the program into the hospitals. As the program progresses we’ll be focusing on that aspect to find ways to connect schools, and hospital “Child Life” programs to the opportunities that having telepresence robots in our community brings.

You can learn more about Double Robotics at http://stories.doublerobotics.com/.

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