NEW YORK — The robot has a little girl’s face, her soft voice. It comes to life on weekday mornings at Peyton Walton’s elementary school in Maryland, attending her classes as she works the controls from her room near a hospital here.
Peyton is 10, thin and blue-eyed, a girl who loves penguins and the color green and clothes that sparkle. She goes to school in Montgomery County, 250 miles south of the radiation therapy she is receiving for a rare type of cancer.
In the past three weeks, it’s the robot — fondly nicknamed PAVS, for Peyton’s Awesome Virtual Self — that connects her to the lessons she can’t physically attend. She joins in the day’s activities, talks to teachers and navigates her classroom, her face showing in real time on a raised iPad screen on the four-foot, 15-pound rolling machine.
“I really like math and science, so I just like being there and learning what they have to teach me,” the fifth-grader said.
For Peyton, the two-way robot system gives her a greater sense of normalcy, a stronger connection to friends, more focus on the familiar rhythms of childhood that preceded her whirl of medical treatments. The experience is being studied by officials in Montgomery County, where the technology has become a pilot program.
“We really are just beginning, and we are learning a lot,” said Kara Trenkamp, the district’s director of technology integration and school support. “The initial start has been very positive.”
The school-based robot appears to be a first in Maryland public schools, according to state officials, and it has sparked other interest, too. Educators in neighboring Fairfax County, Va., recently dropped by to take a look — and they liked what they saw. “We have high hopes for the possibilities,” said Kurt Mills, Fairfax’s program manager for out-of-school support, who said the district has been looking at the same kind of technology.
At Poolesville Elementary, students and staff have embraced Peyton’s robot, which resembles a small Segway, with a rolling base and an iPad at the top.
“It’s really cool,” said fifth-grader Tilly Gaughan. “She’d probably get a little bored in the hospital and get a little sad not seeing her friends.” With the robot, “she can do school and still have fun, seeing her friends and stuff.”
Some of her friends waved at Peyton when they saw PAVS one recent day. She gave a wave back from New York. Her mother said the robot’s importance goes beyond instruction; it’s also her daughter’s primary way of socializing, penetrating the isolation that comes with serious illnesses.
“It makes all the difference,” said her mother, Lynn Schaeber, who pressed on all fronts to get the device for Peyton, doing research, writing letters and meeting with educators.
Schaeber said the technology enables Peyton to keep up, preventing gaps in her learning. But more important is the sense of normalcy that comes from being able to do “the one thing that kids do — go to school,” she said. “We forget as parents that school is their life. They wake up preparing to go to school, and the last thing they do at night is homework.”
Peyton’s doctors in Washington and New York say that her experience is the first they’ve seen with robot technology.
“I think it’s a really exciting technology that could potentially benefit lots of kids,” said AeRang Kim, a pediatric oncologist at Children’s National Health System.
Double Robotics, which made Peyton’s device, has sold about 5,000 such “telepresence robots” since 2012, mostly for use in the business world, said Sara Broyles, a company spokeswoman. About 350 K-12 schools in the United States have bought such robots from the company, she said.
On Long Island, a robot stood in for a ninth-grader last year after the teen had emergency surgery and was about to miss an important week of classes. The robot, borrowed from his mother’s employer, took his place, connecting him from home, said Roberta Tropper, principal at Long Island School for the Gifted.
Satyandra K. Gupta, director of the Maryland Robotics Center at the University of Maryland, said that although the industry is growing, it might take time before telepresence robots become common in schools. It’s not just an issue of acquiring the technology — Peyton’s tech costs about $3,000 — but also raises questions about logistics and privacy, he said.
“If you’re going to have a robot walk the hallways, it could create challenges,” Gupta said.
In Poolesville, the school and community took the leap because of Peyton.
Her friends describe the pre-teen as funny, smart and kind. She likes to play basketball and lacrosse and is a big fan of animals. An aspiring veterinarian, she hopes one day to attend her father’s alma mater, Duke University, or Harvard University, which she says she has heard is a “very good” school.
No one had an inkling that Peyton was sick until late June, as the family was moving to Maryland from Warren, N.J. Peyton complained about an ache in her side, and her mother noticed a bump in her abdomen. Doctors determined it was a tumor the size of a grapefruit, and diagnosed her illness as a rare sarcoma of the liver. Peyton was given a 30 to 50 percent chance of survival, her mother said.
“My heart just dropped,” Schaeber said.
As the family made plans for Peyton’s treatment, Schaeber began thinking about her daughter’s education. “I knew immediately that we needed some type of technology so she could remotely access school,” she said.
Schaeber had heard about two school robots in New Jersey — a concept she thought was perfect for Peyton, who takes school seriously.
“Cancer obliterates a child’s control,” her mother said. “Not knowing the length of what her life would be, I wanted every moment to be as full and normal as possible.”
The robot provides video conferencing, so a student can see and hear a teacher’s lesson, much like Skype or Google Hangouts. But it also allows a student to be a part of class, zooming in on a presentation, moving to a small group discussion or turning to hear better as a teacher walks around the room.
Valaree Dickerson, a Poolesville town commissioner, said word of the family’s struggle spread fast through the small community. People brought meals and looked for other ways to help.
Many in the town of 5,500 — nestled in an agricultural reserve — came together to raise money through a charity bike ride, bracelet sales and a penny “war” between the grades. Two children asked their birthday party guests to donate rather than give gifts. The school’s PTA president, Rebecca Munster, took over the effort to buy Peyton one of the robots.
“Once we started doing the research on the robot, we thought, what an amazing concept,” Dickerson said.
Poolesville’s fifth-grade class gave Peyton handmade creations each time she headed off to chemotherapy at Children’s National. She completed six rounds of the treatment in October, and she celebrated with her classmates.
“No Mo Chemo!” read the large sheet cake that Peyton’s family brought to school.
Doug Robbins, Poolesville Elementary’s principal, said he remembers the October day when Peyton first saw the robot: She lit up like a kid eyeing a Christmas gift.
Robbins said the school was guided by a basic question: “In a very challenging situation, a life-changing situation, what can we do to provide her with a sense of normalcy so that when she needs these treatments, she’s not being stripped of everything?”
In New York, Peyton is staying at the Ronald McDonald House on the Upper East Side. She and her mother share a room with big windows that overlook the rush and wonder of the city. High-rises tower just beyond their street. Taxi horns blare.
Peyton has lost most of her long dark-blonde hair to chemotherapy and wears one of her many knit hats when she appears on the robot’s screen every morning.
Sitting at a small desk near the window, Peyton starts class at the same hour as most of her far-away peers, just after 9 a.m. She has propped up her iPad to control the robot and see into her Poolesville classroom. She takes out a worksheet.
It’s another day of long division.
Pencil in hand, Peyton works through a series of problems on paper, the way she would if she were physically there, then turns the robot to join in a small group discussion with two classmates. They talk back and forth about how they did their work, the two girls at their desks looking into Peyton’s face on a screen.
Her teacher, Ken Keegin, singles out the answer for a particular problem, asking the class who got it right.
Peyton raises her hand from 250 miles away.
Peyton has found the technology easy to manage. The controls show up as buttons on the screen of the same iPad she uses for games such as Minecraft. “I play games that are something like this . . . so it’s pretty simple,” she said.
She doesn’t often steer the robot down school hallways; her classes are connected by internal doors. Typically, an educator sets up the robot in her first class. Peyton moves it within the classroom.
Sometimes there are little glitches that are similar to those any computer user faces: a lost connection, video delays. Once in a while, Peyton inadvertently sends the robot into a wall or a desk. Her teachers and principal say it’s all part of a learning curve. “This is new for everyone, and if there are any kinks, we are working them out,” Keegin says.
Schaeber is advocating for other school systems to buy robots to help children like Peyton.
In social studies one day, where the class is studying the Constitution and the branches of government, Peyton tells her teacher that she’s ready to take her turn at reciting the preamble to the Constitution.
The fifth-grader makes it to class most days, but her radiation therapy — at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center — occasionally limits her schedule.
She steers her robot toward teacher Sharon Zgoda’s desk. “Ms. Z,” as everyone calls her, is a cancer survivor and has made a point of taking Peyton under her wing.
Peyton looks into her iPad at the teacher and begins.
“We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union . . . .”
She does not forget or fumble.
The teacher gives her a top grade — then fist-bumps the computer screen.
Peyton fist-bumps back.