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June 30, 2020

With COVID-19 school closures, the continuity of education for the majority of Pennsylvania’s students is at risk.  Inequities of resources, staffing, and lack of Internet connectivity are making online learning inaccessible for some of our most at-risk communities. This decrease in classroom learning time, both in-person and virtual, is leaving some students further behind and threatens to deepen the chasm in learning outcomes and opportunities. Public-private partnerships are emerging to create just-in-time educational resources to support communities and families. RobotWits LLC, and the PA Rural Robotics Initiative, both Mobility21 deployment partners, and WQED partnered to create the accessible STEM instructional resources, the Robot Doctor, for high school students and teachers.

The Robot Doctor series comprises two parts: 1) eight 14-minute video lessons for students and 2) educator instructional support and feedback channels. The series was broadcast on all seven PBS stations across Pennsylvania to provide immediate instructional support to high school students. Designed to be accessible to most of Pennsylvania’s students in no-tech and low-tech formats, the series can be downloaded from partner websites, streamed, and could be rebroadcast this fall.

The series reinforces critical mathematics concepts taught in high school. The learning objectives in each episode are linked directly to Pennsylvania State Standards in Math and Science and focus on the Pennsylvania Department of Education-recommended content. The Robot Doctor ties math concepts taught in high school to cutting-edge robotic technologies from drones to autonomous vehicles to humanoids.

“The Robot Doctor teaches core math concepts through the lens of robotics,” Explained Maxim Likhachev, co-leader of the project is an associate professor in Carnegie Mellon’s Robotics Institute and the National Robotics Engineering Center (NREC), and director of the Search-Based Planning Laboratory (SBPL) at CMU. He founded RobotWits, the Pittsburgh-based technology company focused on self-driving solutions that created the Robot Doctor content and are supporting educator engagement and professional learning opportunities. A key goal of the materials, as described by Likhachev, is to decrease perceptions that STEM careers are inaccessible.

Cathy Cook, WQED Director of Education Projects, explained, “With in-person instruction still being uncertain, the challenge for WQED will be figuring out how to educate students when accessibility is still an issue. With equity as a huge problem, how can students be held accountable if not everyone has access to the same learning opportunities? And, how can WQED help bridge that divide?”

“COVID-19 increased the urgency of addressing the digital divide”, said Rachel Burcin, the project co-lead. “Families do not have uniform access to technology platforms and stable Internet connections. Accessible content that is tied to standards is becoming even more critical as school districts and individual teachers scramble to make remote learning work. In this new normal, TV broadcast is becoming a central tool to reach as many families as possible.” Tim Heffernan, the founder of the PA Rural Robotics Initiative, notes that bringing world-class resources to rural communities like those that he supports opens tremendous opportunities and contributes to economic and workforce development.

“The Robot Doctor is unique for WQED because it is rooted in public television’s core mission of educating our audience and providing direct instruction to students over our airwaves. Additionally, due to unforeseen circumstances from Covid-19, huge gaps were identified by the Department of Education, and we were asked to respond, in real-time, to the need,” according to WQED’s Director Educational Partnerships Gina Masciola.

This public-private partnership engages key stakeholders from government, non-profit, and private entities and enterprises, including the Pennsylvania Department of Education, RobotWits LLC, PA Rural Robotics, and leverages expertise and leadership from roboticists and educators. To learn more or to bring these free resources to your school or community, contact Rachel Burcin at rachel@robotwits.com or Maxim Likhachev at maxim@robotwits.com.