As part of their class work, students in RHS 401 used a robot that functioned much like a mobile Skype.

Connecting through technology

Classes between the Hazleton and Wilkes-Barre campuses took on a new element at the end of the fall semester thanks to robotic technology. As part of their class work, RHS 401 students used a robot that functioned much like a mobile Skype.

Hazleton, Wilkes-Barre students interact in class using robot

Classes between the Hazleton and Wilkes-Barre campuses took on a new element at the end of the fall semester thanks to robotic technology.

RHS 401: Community Mental Health Practices and Services, taught by Assistant Professor of Rehabilitation and Human Services Garrett Huck, is a polycom course that operates through videoconferencing: taught at one campus and live streamed to another. As part of their class work, students in the class used a robot that functioned much like a mobile Skype.

The BEAM robot – which works like a tablet on wheels – moved around in a Hazleton classroom while being controlled by students at the Wilkes-Barre campus. The Wilkes-Barre students were able to steer the robot around the room, seeing the classroom and their peers virtually. The Hazleton students saw the Wilkes-Barre students on the tablet as it moved around the classroom.  

“I was trying to find some ways to bridge the gap between the two classes this semester and get the students more engaged in polycom courses. Integrating this technology in the classroom makes it a better overall experience for students,” Huck said.

Huck, a member of Penn State’s Teaching and Learning with Technology team, learned about the technology as part of the TLT Reach initiative, a program designed to assist faculty to more effectively integrate technology into their classrooms to link shared environments such as the two-campus class at Hazleton and Wilkes-Barre.

Student groups, each made up of students from both campuses, were assigned joint presentations that focused on people’s attitudes about those with severe mental illness in society.

“I wanted the students to conduct interviews with community members to get an idea of those attitudes and stigmas and then get together to discuss. Doing interviews in the locations of both campuses was able to give us a broader sample for the project,” Huck said.

Students were intrigued by the concept, having not used the technology in a classroom before.

Katharine Ray, a Penn State Hazleton student, said she was excited when she learned there would be a robot in the class.

“I have never used technology along the lines of a robot that could be controlled from a far distance. I was overjoyed to see that Penn State was implementing this kind of technology to make our experience as students better. I think that it helped the students at Wilkes-Barre to feel like they were standing with us giving presentations. It also helped us on the Hazleton side to feel more connected to the students at Wilkes-Barre,” she said.

Penn State Wilkes-Barre student Lauren Jenkins also eagerly anticipated using the new technology to feel a closer connection with her peers in Hazleton.

“Since groups were a combination of Wilkes-Barre and Hazleton students, it was almost like we at Wilkes-Barre were standing in the front of class with the rest of our group in Hazleton,” she said. “It isn't exactly what I expected because it didn't look like a ‘robot.’ It had no arms and legs anywhere but it was amazing that it could be controlled by a computer more than 30 miles away with a live video attached!” 

Jenkins added, “Just getting to try it was a great experience in and of itself because I don't think every college campus is lucky enough to have one of these or will even get the chance to try such technology. I think in the future it can be used in the same type of way through group presentations or to interview or to give a lecture to another campus. It could give that personal connection of being able to see each other.”