Lying in his hospital room, on a mattress designed to protect his fragile skin, 13-year-old Achim Nurse poked his bandaged fingers at an orange button on what looked like a souped-up video game console.
Half a second later, in a social studies class discussing the Erie Canal, a 5-foot-tall steel-blue robot raised its hand.
"You have a question, Achim?" said the teacher.
Achim is using a pair of robots - one, called "Mr. Spike," at his bedside, and its mate, "Mrs. Candy," in the classroom - to keep up with his schoolwork and his friends for the months he will be bedridden at Blythedale Children's Hospital in Valhalla, just north of New York City.
The robot in the classroom, which displays a live picture of Achim, provides what its inventors call "telepresence": It gives the boy an actual presence in the classroom, recognized by teachers and classmates. It can move from class to class on its four-wheel base and even stop at the lockers for a between-periods chat.
"The robot literally is embraced by students in the classroom as though that is the medically fragile student," said Andrew Summa, national director of the robot project, which is in use at six other hospitals around the country. Achim's teacher, Bob Langerfield, said his other students had become used to the robot - and were treating it as if it were Achim - after just a few days.
The program, called PEBBLES (for Providing Education By Bringing Learning Environments to Students), has great potential for expansion, supporters say. It could keep suspended students connected to their classrooms, for example, or even help young prisoners. Summa says it also has promise as a tool in treating autism because it gives the patient control of the social environment.