Robot Allows Kindergartener to Attend School

by Springfield Public Schools

Caleb Miller is a kindergartner who loves the book Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? He lives in the Gray Elementary School attendance area but attends classes at Delaware Elementary School — thanks to a special robot. 

“He’s a very social little boy, and he especially enjoys being around his peers,” said Desire’ Miller, Caleb’s mother. “But to be in a classroom setting every day isn’t a good option for him, but with the robot, he loves being able to attend school.” 

Five years ago, Caleb Miller was born with a complex congenital heart defect that required a heart transplant at four months old. While waiting for a heart transplant, he had a massive stroke that took his left hemisphere of his brain, and his eventual transplant left him very vulnerable to airborne illnesses. Contracting a cold could mean a hospital stay for Caleb, so school wasn’t an option, says Miller. 

Caleb in Class

But that wasn’t an option for the SPS Assistive Technology team, made up of SPS occupational therapist Gary Koeppe and speech language pathologist Steven Kleinsasser. After helping Caleb to secure funding for a communication device, they went about the task of getting Caleb to attend classes, in whatever way worked for him. 

“With Caleb, thinking about what we provide him specifically, our hearts just went out to him,” said Koeppe. “So we asked a big question: How do we give him that school experience, where he can at least have some interaction with his peers, have fun and enjoy school?” 

Koeppe wrote a Missouri Assistive Technology Reimbursement Grant for a $2,900 telepresence robot, later named Hal 9000. Now, a couple of times a week, Desire’ logs on to Caleb’s Chromebook and connects to the robot, booting it up and driving it down the hallway to Melanie Miller’s kindergarten class. There, Caleb attends calendar time, hearing what day of the week it is, the day’s weather, waving to his classmates and more — just like any kindergartner. 

Caleb down the hallway

“We’re exploring ways to help students like Caleb, who are immunosuppressed, who can’t come to school but want that interaction,” said Pam Marion, assistant director of special services, who has worked with special education team members to support Caleb since he was 3. “It’s really neat to see him interact with his friends and to see his friends interact with him, thanks to this robot. It wouldn’t be possible otherwise.” 

To make Caleb’s remote learning possible, the Assistive Technology team collaborated with the Information Technology department to install advanced Wi-Fi connections in an older portion of Delaware’s building. The improved signal improved the quality of the livestream, which the IT department continues to tweak and improve. 

Supporting Caleb and his learning matters, but he is just one student the long-time Assistive Technology team supports every day. In the last three years, the AT team has placed around 50 augmentative/alternative communication devices in the hands of students and their staff and families, allowing those students to better learn and use language to convey their thoughts, feelings and desires — a life-changing development. 

Robot Attends Class

“AAC devices give students who are nonverbal a voice and a means to express themselves,” says Kleinsasser. “This allows them to more effectively participate in their academic, social and, generally, in their overall life.” 

Attending music class and calendar time has become a part of Caleb’s routine, and thanks to Caleb’s communication device, Caleb now asks his mom to read Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? She’s happy to read to him, knowing what he wants and the colors he’s learning. 

“SPS has bent over backward for Caleb to make sure we feel loved and that our family’s not forgotten, even though he can’t be in a regular school setting,” said Miller. “It’s been amazing to see so many people acknowledge how special Caleb is, which we know, but it’s been so amazing to have so many people at SPS see it, too.”