Central student uses robot to connect with classroom

Jessica Schladebeck

When Zachary Shiffer was diagnosed with leukemia, he told his parents he was sad he was going to be missing out on second grade.

Zach Shiffer joins his second grade class as ZAP (Zachary's Automated Presence)

But thanks to a specially designed robot  an iPad placed in a mobile robotics base, combined with an app Zach uses as a remote control  the second grader is able to be a part of regular classroom activities despite being more than 30 miles away, receiving treatment at Penn State Hershey Medical Center.

The robot, nicknamed ZAP which stands for Zach's Automated Presence joined Kate Shiflet and Rachel Speelman's second-grade classrooms last month, sporting a Flyers hat and a Stony Brook Elementary School shirt.

"In the morning Zach partners with people for math lessons, in music he gets to sing along with us," said of one of Zach's classmates, Rowan McWilliams. "One time he went to lunch with us. ZAP didn't eat, but Zach got to talk to all of his friends."

Remarkable: ZAP on Monday attended a Central York school board meeting, and Zach's father, Jason, joined him on the iPad to speak with the board.

Zach's ability to interface with his classmates and teachers remotely "is pretty remarkable," Shiffer said. "This is an important social time. Zach can get the academics through homeschooling, but now he's basically there, in the classroom."

Zach told the board it only took him three days to learn how to steer ZAP around the classroom, and he demonstrated his driving skills for those in attendance.

Rowan told the board that students loved having ZAP in the classroom.

"It has two wheels, so that's pretty cool," he said. "It's really cool how he controls him. If we're sitting on the floor, Zach can lower ZAP, 'cause if he's all the way up to the ceiling and we're all sitting on the ground, it's hard to talk."

Both teachers, who told the board the idea was inspired by "The Big Bang Theory" and a similar robot used in the Red Lion Area School District, said that they love having ZAP in class.

"It's been a true blessing," Shiflet said.

The bot: The Central York School District started out renting Zach's robot from Double Robotics, but the district owns it as of Thursday. The district is looking into implementing a similar technology approach to connect a kindergartner to her class as well.

According to the Double Robotics' website, a robot and camera kit can cost up to $3,000.

School board member Marie Damiano said the technology was "priceless."

"It sounds like the kids will probably miss ZAP, but I'm sure they'll be even happier that you're in the classroom," said board member Robert Weikert. "We are all looking forward to having you back in school."

— Reach Jessica Schladebeck at jschladebeck@yorkdispatch.com.