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New Castle teen uses robot to continue learning from home

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Monday, Jan. 30, 2012
 

Teacher Ben Edwards points to the number 75 written on the board in his seventh-grade math class at Mohawk Junior High School in Lawrence County.

"Is this going to round up to 80 or down to 70?" he asks all the students before calling on one to answer. "Cris?"

From a half-mile away in his bedroom at home, Cris Colaluca correctly answers, "Up!"

Edwards can hear and see Cris clearly through a screen set atop a 4-foot-tall, 20-pound mobile robot called a VGo. As the first student in the state to use the technology, according to the company that produces it, Cris is attending school for the first time in six years.

"I was surprised there was something out there to help me," said Cris, 14, of New Castle, an affable boy with a crop of curly brown hair and a quick smile.

Cris was born with spina bifida but attended school until his first-grade year, when he developed a rare condition that caused his body to seize almost 90 percent of the night.

"His brain was getting no rest," said his mother, Terry Colaluca.

The seizures caused respiratory problems as well as achalasia, a disorder affecting the ability of the esophagus to move food toward the stomach. Cris now takes 21 medications daily, including steroids to control the seizures. He has 16 doctors.

Cris no longer can physically tolerate school. For several years, teachers came to his home. He tried a stationary web cam but missed out on the peer interaction he remembered from earlier years.

Last year, Mohawk technology coordinator Theresa McConnell discovered a solution when she saw a news report on the VGo, made by the Boston-based company of the same name.

"I knew that was exactly what we needed," she said.

Cris can control the VGo — which has a camera, microphone and video display — anywhere in the school via Wi-Fi coverage. Using a computer mouse to navigate the robot, Cris can look all around and zoom in and out. VGo is battery-powered and can run up to a full day between charges. It's stored at the school and charges on a docking station overnight.

The VGo cost the district $5,995 plus a $1,195 annual service contract. That's money well spent, educators say.

"In the past, we used technology to bring the world to Cris. Now it allows Cris to come to the world," said Kathy Kwolek, superintendent of the Mohawk Area School District.

Lorree Houk, assistant to the superintendent, has worked with Cris for years and was instrumental in obtaining the VGo, which required school board approval. Members were enthusiastic about the purchase, administrators said.

"Every day when I see him go down the hallway, I almost get a tear in my eye," Houk said. "It's a great experience."

Ned Semonite, vice president of product management and marketing at VGo, said about 20 homebound students across the country are using the robot.

At home, Cris' bedroom doubles as a classroom. He has his desk next to a shelf stocked with school supplies. Every morning, Cris sits at his computer, 15 minutes before class begins, alongside Mohawk teacher Josh Long, who works at home with him daily.

"If there's any problems or he needs assistance, I'm here to help," said Long, a first-year teacher.

Above Cris' desk is a map of the school hand-drawn on green construction paper, though by now, he doesn't seem to need it. Between classes, Cris zips his robot down the school's crowded hallways, pausing occasionally to chat if a friend stops him to say hi. Once he's in class, Cris positions his VGo in a spot near the front, often gliding into a space between two desks next to his classmates.

Fred Gadelmeyer, 18, a Mohawk senior, escorts Cris' VGo after his first class, a journey that requires a ride on the elevator. He said he was initially surprised by the robot's design, but now it simply fits into the scene.

"You don't see anything, but you know there is always someone driving it from home," he said. "It's kind of neat."

Cris is an avid learner, but it's clear math is where he shines brightest. On a recent day, Cris lit up as Edwards greeted him before class, joking with him and commenting on the Troy Polamalu jersey he was wearing.

Edwards was Cris' home teacher last year. The goal is to have Cris learning independently by his junior year in high school, but for now, the extra attention helps him stay on task and troubleshoot any issues he might have with the VGo.

"I like to see him grow," Edwards said. "He comes in and jokes with the other kids. He's so willing to learn. He always wants to get started. That shows a lot about him."

Being back in school has changed Cris in ways his mother struggles to explain.

"There was an old Cris, the boy that existed before the seizures hit. The seizures changed his health and his personality," she said. "He's still a happy-go-lucky kid, but because he had no peer interaction, he became subdued.

"When VGo came into his life, some of that spark came back. Some of his personality is back. It's an enthusiasm I haven't seen in a long time."

After school, Cris loves working on his masterpiece — a city built of Legos that dominates an entire table in his playroom. Here, in what Cris calls Pittsburgh City, is everything modern society needs: a hotel, a pet shop, office buildings. In typical Pittsburgh fashion, it even has a construction zone. On a shelf above the city sit Lego versions of landmarks both local and national: Fallingwater, the White House, the Seattle Space Needle.

Though Cris has created a world all his own, he's much more interested in the world he can now explore every day at school.

"I missed school," he said. "I missed all my friends."

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