Someday, Cris Colaluca wants to drive a train.

Cyberstudent by Dan Irwin, New Castle News

Someday, Cris Colaluca wants to drive a train. For now, the Mohawk seventh-grader is making do with a robot.

Cris, who has a rare seizure disorder that prevents him from attending school, is believed to be just the second homebound student in the nation to report for classes through an avatar called VGo. The 13 year old maneuvers his cybernetic doppelganger through the halls of the district’s junior high school via a laptop computer that is set up in his room at home. Once in the classroom, Cris can see and be seen by his teacher and fellow students through a monitor, microphone, sound system and camera on the robot. He is able to ask and answer questions and participate in discussions
“It’s a nice robot,” Cris said. “It has a Dolby sound system, it has a camera – just like Skype – and I can interact with other kids, go to assemblies. It’s much better than a web cam. I can move it around on wheels". So thrilled is Cris with the robot that he had his picture taken with it during summer practice sessions at the school, and he made copies for the doctors – one local pediatrician and 15 Pittsburgh specialists – who attend to him.

“He was just so excited,” said his mother, Terry Colaluca. “He gave one to Dr. (Andrew) Urbach at Children’s (Hospital), who’s been treating his seizures from the start (at age six). Dr. Urbach looked at me and said, “This is amazing. I’ve never seen him like this.”

“Sometimes, when you have a sick child, just that little bit of hope helps with the medical situation, too, because they say that your attitude has a lot to do with your healing.” Despite being born with several challenging health conditions, Cris started first grade on time at Mohawk. But in February of that year, he was diagnosed with a condition that causes his body to seize through the night as he sleeps. That led to a related condition, atypical absence seizures, manifested during the day. Cris missed the end of the first grade year, and although he attempted to return in the fall as a second grader, “it was just too much for his body to take,” Terry said. Initially, the school district provided a teacher for in-home instruction, a situation Terry describes as difficult. “In fact", she said, “up until last year, it was very adversarial.”

In 2010, Lorree Houk, assistant to the district’s superintendent and Theresa McConnell, technology coordinate, set up a web cam for Cris. It was a giant step forward, but it still had its limitations. The focus was fixed, restricting his ability to interact with the teacher and students in the classroom. Additionally, McConnell noted, “He wasn’t able to go to the auditorium for assemblies or to a basketball game, like he can with this unit” (the VGo).

Last spring, though, McConnell saw a TV news report on a Texas youth who was the first in the country to use VGo technology to attend school remotely. With district approval, she investigated and the unit was in place by summer.

But was Mohawk Junior High ready for the robot that enabled him to do so?
After the briefest of acclimation periods, the answer appears to be yes.

Cris, homebound because of a rare seizure disorder, is back in a classroom setting for the first time since second grade, thanks to a robot known as VGo. The 13-year-old operates the avatar — officially, a mobile videoconferencing system — from a laptop in his home, maneuvering it from one seventh-grade class to another and interacting with students and teachers once he arrives.

Even with two summer practice sessions under his belt, it’s still a bit of a work in progress.”
“The first week was hard,” Cris said. “I ran into a couple of people the first day. I ran into a kid today. (The first week), there were lots of kids looking into the screen.”

It wasn’t long, though, before students and teachers alike got past the novelty and settled down to business as usual.

“Adults, when we think of a robot, we think of ‘Lost in Space,’ ” said Michele Peterson, Cris’ language arts teacher. “But kids in general are so used to technology that to them, this is just another thing, like a cell phone or Skyping.

“When he first rolled into class, we were staring at it, but I explained to the kids what this is and what we are doing and because you can see his face (on a small monitor), I think that’s what makes it work. Now, he’s just another kid in the hall.”

In addition, Principal Ray Omer met with each grade during the first week of classes to talk about the new cyberkid in school.

David Bredl, Cris’ science teacher, said it was awkward at first to incorporate the robot into the classroom setting, but that he and his students have adjusted.
“The kids (around the school) are pretty amazed by it,” he said. “Some of the older kids especially, they’ve got no idea what’s going on, so they’ll be looking at it as it goes down the hall.

“But not these kids,” he said, referring to his second-period class. “It’s second nature to them. It became second nature to them two or three days into the school year.” Peterson agreed. “It’s fascinating, but it’s nothing out of the ordinary,” she said. “It’s just like having another student in the classroom. We do group work, and he’s right in with the group, and the kids are interacting with him.”

Peterson, Bredl and Cris’ other teachers must have tests and other papers ready each day to send to Cris’ home with instructor Joshua Long, who stays with his student throughout the day. Long supervises the paperwork and is certified to teach Cris in all his subjects should there be an extended service outage.

With the in-school challenges attended to, the district now turns its attention outward, said Lorree Houk, assistant to the superintendent.

“We want to get the word out to other school districts,” Houk noted, “that if they have students who can’t come to school for physical reasons, this is a great option.”