NEWPORT — One Wednesday afternoon last spring at Sebasticook Valley Middle School, students Jasmine Fatmi and Sarah Link were working on taking a test for their integrated technology class.
“I’m getting pretty good at this,” Fatmi said with a smile as she completed the questions. Like many girls her age, 15-year-old Fatmi likes painting her nails, riding horses and spending time with friends. She has a poster of Justin Bieber on her bedroom wall and her favorite ice cream is chocolate-vanilla swirl.
But unlike the rest of her eighth grade class, Fatmi attends school via a robot.
At just 52 pounds, Fatmi has a number of disabilities, including Crohn’s disease, that have left her homebound since the fourth grade. Fatmi also has developmental disabilities, diabetes and lacks both a pancreas and spleen.
For the last couple of years, Fatmi was home-schooled with the help of a tutor. But in February, a student at Nokomis Regional High School, Jacob McEwen, got a federal special services grant to buy a Double Robotics robot as part of a senior year service project.
Fatmi can operate the robot from her home or the hospital, allowing her to virtually attend school without actually setting foot in the middle school.
Fatmi’s robot, who goes by the name Sully, wears T-shirts and jewelry, has her own charging station and a mirror to get dressed in at school and even navigates the hallways of the building on her own, although she does require occasional guidance from her peers because Sully doesn’t have the same perception of direction as a human.
A line of red tape runs down the upstairs hallway at the school showing Fatmi where to go. Sully is about the same height as the rest of the middle school students, a skinny black pole holding up an iPad face. She gets around on a large wheel that rolls through the hallways as students buzz around her.
To raise her hand, Fatmi can use her laptop from home to control the robot, slowly extending the pole holding Sully’s face and raising it higher.
The Maine Department of Education does not keep track of how many robots have been used to help sick and homebound students attend class, but a spokesman said he was aware of just one other instance of a student using a robot in Maine.
Even so, the use of such technology for educational purposes is becoming more popular, according to Sara Broyles, a spokeswoman for California-based Double Robotics, who said the company has about 850 such robots being used in primary schools across the country, though their most common application is in the business world.
The robot Fatmi uses cost about $2,500 and belongs to Newport-based Regional School Unit 19, which also serves the communities of Corinna, Dixmont, Etna, Hartland, Palmyra, Plymouth and St. Albans. It’s available for any student to use, but Fatmi is the only student in need of the robot currently, said Kern Kelley, the district-wide technology integrator for RSU 19.
“She used to say, ‘Why am I doing anything?'” said Fatmi’s mother, Sherry Martin, a single mother raising three children. “Now she gets to socialize. She looks forward to it, to getting to see kids her own age, how they dress and how they act.”
TRYING TO LEAD A NORMAL LIFE
Fatmi’s physical ailments have a profound effect on her ability to go to school and lead a normal life.
Many days her mother and siblings, 17-year-old Neesha and 8-year-old Eli, are her only connection to the outside world.
Her mother, Martin, 41, is unable to work because she spends so much time caring for Fatmi and Eli, who has autism. Their income comes from Social Security and MaineCare to pay for the children’s medical needs and food stamps.
In 2000 Martin fled an abusive relationship with Neesha and Jasmine’s father in Pakistan. Neesha was a baby at the time and Martin realized when she got home to the United States that she was pregnant with Jasmine, who has never met her father.
Martin said she has had genetic tests to try to determine the cause of her two youngest children’s health problems, but there appears to be no genetic cause. She wonders if she was exposed to something in Pakistan.
Fatmi was born with respiratory problems and always had a poor immune system, according to Martin. When she was around 3 or 4 years old, hospitalizations for dehydration and stomach cramps became common.
When Fatmi was 7, she was diagnosed with acute pancreatitis — severe inflammation of the pancreas, which is responsible for producing digestive enzymes and hormones essential for the body’s metabolism and nutrients absorption. When treatment didn’t work, doctors removed Fatmi’s pancreas, as well as her spleen, which had also become inflamed, leaving her without a spleen to filter red blood cells and help her body fight infection.
The loss of two organs as well as Famti’s Crohn’s disease and diabetes contribute to week-long bouts of illness that can set in at a moment’s notice, leaving her bed-ridden and weak, her only nutrients coming from a pale nutritional shake her mother prepares and gives to her through a feeding tube.
In early August, around the time of Fatmi’s 15th birthday, such a bout of illness set in. She canceled a birthday party with family and friends, and her mother and siblings instead brought her a cake in bed. Instead of going back-to-school shopping, they waited days for the results of blood culture tests that would determine whether Jasmine needed to go to the hospital for a bad kidney infection.
Severe abdominal cramping is one of the side effects of Crohn’s disease, which Fatmi was diagnosed with at age 12. The disease is rare in people so young, and as a result it is hard for Fatmi to get the medication she needs, her mother said. She also hasn’t been able to get some medical tests done that could help with treatment because she is in poor health so consistently.
On many days she is so weak she can barely get out of bed.
Her doctor’s have advised against attending school since it would expose Fatmi’s fragile immune system. She’s also on a number of medications that have to be administered throughout the day and she frequently eats through a feeding tube. Abdominal cramping from the Crohn’s disease can set in at any time.
“I never pictured in my wildest dreams that, ‘Oh, yeah, maybe we would get a robot for my kid to go to school,'” Martin said.
EMBRACING THE ROBOT
The Maine Department of Education does not have statistics on the use of robots in Maine schools and knows of just one other instance of a robot being used to help a Maine student attend class.
Former Commissioner of Education Stephen Bowen’s daughter, Katherine Bowen, has used a robot at the Camden-Rockport Middle School since earlier this year when she was diagnosed with cancer, according to Mike Muir, policy director for the Learning Through Technology Team at the Department of Education.
Muir said he wouldn’t be surprised if more schools in Maine start using robots for homebound students.
“I think the real advantage is that it fosters something closer to the kinds of relationships students develop face-to-face, more than simply moving a computer with video conferencing from room to room,” Muir said via email. “The child can control the robot’s movements, refocusing as the teacher moves around the room, or onto classmates to listen to answers or collaborate on work.”
At first, Martin said, her daughter was nervous about using the robot. She was worried other students would see her differently because she couldn’t play outside or go to recess.
But that’s not the case at all.
The students and teachers at the middle school are excited about their digital classmate and quickly embraced her.
Since Fatmi stopped attending school full time in the fourth grade, some of the teachers have communicated with her via Skype, but it didn’t have the same effect as the robot, said Kern Kelley.
Sully the robot came to the school in February, and the goal in the first few months was to get other students used to the technology and get Jasmine comfortable with it, Kelley said. For the most part there have been no glitches, although a weak Internet connection can affect how the robot operates.
Sully also has a wardrobe of T-shirts and a mirror in the library where she can get dressed. Last school year, two students, Cassidy Norris and Maci Leali, designed hangers that fit into the back of the robot and allow Fatmi to wear different T-shirts every day.
The bubbly blond girls are eager to show off their invention, which they designed and printed on a 3-D printer. They’ve also patented their invention and sold the accessory to Double Robotics.
“It allows her to feel like she’s wearing something new and gives her a way to express herself,” said Norris, who attended elementary school with Jasmine.
“She needed it so we just did it,” Leali said.
The girls are also working on designing a robotic arm for Sully so she can ride the school elevator on her own and a Wi-Fi device that can attach to the robot to help with Internet connectivity issues. The arm would attach to Sully’s torso at the exact height of the elevator button and she could press it by simply walking forward.
When Fatmi is feeling well, she attends school — via Sully — three days a week for two hours at a time. She takes social studies, math, health and integrated technology classes. On the other days a tutor comes to her house.
“You have to get used to it. At first I felt like I had to talk a lot louder,” said Keith Kelley, the integrated technology teacher at Sebasticook Valley Middle School. (Keith and Kern are brothers who both work in technology in the school.)
That hurdle was easily fixed though when the school got a speaker for Sully to carry around to help her project her voice.
“The more time I’ve had with her the more natural it is. I’ve started treating her more like a regular kid, just making sure she sits and checking in with her at the start of class,” Keith Kelley said.
Meanwhile, the other students don’t even bat an eye at the presence of a robot in the classroom.
“They’re always texting and Skyping. They just think that way,” Kern Kelley said.
Having Sully in class, especially in an integrated technology class, is a good example of how technology is applicable in our daily lives, he said. But more, importantly, it also teaches the students something that can’t be taught in a classroom.
“What we’re really trying to teach them is empathy,” Keith Kelley said. “You can artificially create a math or science experiment but you can’t artificially create empathy.”
After the integrated technology class wraps up, Sully prepares for math class. There’s no red tape outside the integrated technology classroom, so friends Emily Meservey and Sarah Link help her get there.
“It’s pretty normal. You have to kind of tell her to scoot back over, but really that’s the only thing,” said Meservey, 14.
In math, Sully stands at the front of the room while her teacher, Matt O’Connell, writes a series of equations on the white board for her.
Meanwhile, Fatmi sits on her couch at home and completes the math problems. She thanks her teacher — through Sully — and politely asks for more when she’s done.
Because she has missed so much school due to her health, Fatmi is repeating eighth grade this year. In early December she had only used the robot five or six times this school year, her mother said.
It helps her with her school work, but more importantly, Sully is a connection to the outside world that Fatmi didn’t have before.
Being in a classroom setting for just a few days of the school year means it has been almost impossible for Fatmi to catch up on her school work this year.
“She has these gaps that she’s missing and it was at the point where she would say, ‘Why am I even doing this? I’m so far behind,'” Martin said. “But that’s not the only purpose of the robot. There’s a social purpose as well as academic. She can sit and talk with her friends now, eat lunch with them and carry on a conversation. That’s the good part.”
In August, the family gave a presentation to high school students in the Upward Bound Math Science Program at the University of Maine at Orono and talked about how instrumental the robot has been to them.
Looking back on the day she first got the robot, Fatmi told the crowd, “It was the greatest day of my life because I got to go to school and spend time with my friends.”
Rachel Ohm — 612-2368