Robot designed by Ohio State University helps 6-year-old boy with leukemia attend school

Posted at 12:43 AM, Mar 09, 2019
and last updated 2019-03-09 10:32:14-05

SOUTH CHARLESTON, Ohio (AP) — Levi Suttles is just like any other kindergartner. He learns numbers, plays with friends during recess and enjoys listening to his teacher read Dr. Seuss books.

The only difference between Levi and his classmates at Miami View Elementary School in South Charleston? He attends school via a robot he controls from home.

“He can see his friends every day. He can go to his Valentine’s Day party,” Kristen Suttles, Levi’s mom said. “It’s like he’s there, but he’s on an iPad. He moves around like a Segway.”

Levi was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia in March of 2018 at the age of 5.

Childhood acute lymphoblastic leukemia is a type of cancer in which bone marrow makes too many immature lymphocytes, which is a type of white blood cell, according to the National Cancer Institute’s website.

After his diagnoses, it was hard for Levi, now 6, to make it through full school days with doctors appointments and just overall exhaustion.

“Pediatric cancer is not as rare as people think. So there are so many school-aged children who are missing out on not only academic but also social aspects of school,” Suttles said.

Levi’s teacher, Jayelin Call, said it hurt to have to mark him absent every day.

“As a teacher, it’s heartbreaking to mark a child absent for 80-something days,” Call said. “You know, you want them here and learning. He’s entitled to get the best education possible.”

Call had heard a story about a student using a robot in the classroom in Pennsylvania. Around the same time, the Ohio State Engineering Department reached out to see whether Miami View wanted help with any projects.

“Right away we had someone come out and walk us through how a double robotics system in the classroom would work,” Call said. “We came up with classroom rules for the robot and how to interact with it. So we were ready when it came.”

Ohio State donated the robot to Miami View. Levi is allowed to use the robot for as long as he needs it. Suttles said with Levi’s diagnoses, he will require treatment for another 2 1/2 years.

The robot is controlled by Levi with simple arrow commands on an iPad and includes a Facetime-like streaming service. Levi can see the class, and the class can see him.

Suttles said that when Call reached out to her with the news of Levi being able to attend school in a way that was convenient for him, she was ecstatic.

“He is an expert when it comes to the iPad and stuff so he picked it up right away,” Suttles said.

Call’s class has been using the robot since the beginning of February and the students are already used to it. The robot has its own set of blue eye glasses, a wardrobe staple for Levi.

“Levi himself is very interactive so he is able still be able to show that,” Call said. “When I ask a question, he can raise his hand. Sometimes, when I’m not paying attention, he will rise his robot up so I know he wants to be called on.”

Suttles agrees that Levi has a big personality.

“He’s so funny. He rolled into the class Valentine’s Day party and announced, ‘The party is here,’” Suttles said. “He loves all typical boy things. He loves dinosaurs and video games.”

Suttles said Levi has been nothing but positive since his diagnoses, and has never complained once about having to miss seeing his friends at school.

There is one thing that Levi doesn’t like.

“I don’t like needles,” Levi said. “They are sharp and they stick you.”