A mechanical robot that allows students to interact with a person in another state is making its debut in the Laguna Beach Unified School District — at a Thurston Middle School afterschool club.
Beginning last fall, students in teacher Michelle Martinez's forensic/mock trial club watched and listened to instructions given by Martinez's daughter, Noelle Martinez, in Texas, as part of a year-long investigation into the death of Richard III, the English king killed in the Battle of Bosworth in 1485.
Noelle, an anthropology major at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, has led class discussions and guided students studying the intricacies of crime investigation using the robot, which can be controlled from a computer and has an iPad attached to its frame.
The robot consists of a single, vertical tube attached to a wheel base that can be adjusted from 47 to 60 inches. An iPad attaches at the top of the tube, allowing a person to be seen on screen, similar to Skype or Google hangouts.
Noelle read online tutorials to familiarize herself with the robot and conducted some practice runs to test its mobility.
"I bumped into a student, so I apologized and said, 'Oh, I didn't see you there,'" said Noelle, who would like to work for the FBI and eventually start her own consulting company. "This can go to a student's work station and see if they are doing the procedure correctly. You get to see how the students are doing instead of an overall glance."
The latest exercise in the forensics club occurred Monday, when students dug away dirt in an outdoor plot on campus and discovered artificial skeletal remains similar to those of Richard III.
Wi-fi glitches Monday hindered the robot's participation, but the device proved useful in the fall when Noelle was in the lab at Baylor.
By pressing the arrow keys on her computer, Noelle, a Laguna Beach High alum, moved the robot around the room at Thurston, watching students do their work and giving them pointers.
A camera on the iPad allowed Noelle to hone in on smaller groups of students — something not possible with a stationery system such as a TV mounted on a wall with a panoramic view of the room.
At this point, the battery-powered robot, made by the company Double Robotics, is only compatible with iPad versions. The device hooks into a charging station plugged into a wall outlet.
The district is using Martinez's class as a test to see if it's something other instructors could use. Chief Technology Officer Mike Morrison used the robot during a teacher training last spring that allowed an educator based in New York to communicate with instructors.
"Some districts are using it when students are out sick," Morrison said.
In that case, a student at home logs into a computer and, with the robot maneuvering throughout the classroom, can interact with fellow students and the teacher during the lesson.
"It's more personal than a talking head on a TV," Morrison said of the device, which he said cost about $3,000 with tax.
In the coming months, students will emulate the steps in analyzing bones for DNA to determine if it is, in fact, Richard III. Subsequent evidence digs will focus on weapons possibly used to kill Richard III as students build a murder case for a mock trial scheduled this spring.