Homebound student sends robot to school

By KRISTI PAXTON, The Courier

JANESVILLE — Because a Janesville teacher saw a robot on the “Today” show, a home-bound student now can virtually attend school and interact with his peers.

Nick Nisius, a senior at Janesville Community School, has Duchenne muscular dystrophy. When he heard about the VGo robot, he immediately began his own research.

“He always wants to find out on his own how things work,” said Nick’s mom, Cindy Nisius.

In 2008, Nick could no longer physically attend classes. Skype, an Internet video conferencing application, became his way into the classroom. Associate Michaela Dighton carried a laptop from classroom to classroom to keep Nick connected.

“Mrs. Dighton carried Nick through the halls and connected him to Skype during each class period,” Cindy Nisius said.

Now with his new VGo robot telepresence machine, Nick navigates the halls and classrooms on his own from home via a laptop, on-screen keyboard, clipboard and mouse pad. He uses the scroll wheel on his mouse to change camera angles on his VGo, so that he — via his robot — can look in different directions. Students come up to him and talk about school happenings and classroom assignments. They see Nick’s face in real time.

“There is an oval on the screen that pops up. I move the mouse over it and click on it. I see pictures of the halls or the classrooms. I can move around and go to different people and talk to them,” he said.

Nick and his friends laugh when the system shows its limitations.

“Sometimes someone forgets and shuts a door or they turn off the VGo, carry it down the hall and Nick finds himself in another room,” Cindy Nisius said.

Nick can now join his peers at lunch, athletic events, assemblies and other indoor school activities. The success of VGo depends not only on Nick, but on the cooperation of his friends, family and teachers.

“At Janesville we are a small school committed to the individual needs of every student,” said Janesville superintendent Steve Gray. “Sometimes we have to get creative to provide the most appropriate opportunities, whether it be an advanced specialty course or something entirely unique, like Nick’s situation. It takes everyone going the extra mile to end up with these types of solutions.”

Friend Josh Despard walks with Nick’s VGo down the hall and introduces Nick to substitute teachers or new students. Classmate Andy Sorenson makes copies of class notes and puts them in Nick’s folder in the school office. The folder is delivered to Nick at the end of each day.

“It’s really cool to use and (VGo) makes you feel like you are there,” Nick said.

See it yourself