Penn State explores value of smart presence technologies in education

Emma Gosalvez
August 29, 2016

What if you could walk around a room and talk to everyone in that room without actually being there?

This may sound like the plot to a futuristic science fiction film, but it is actually real.

Thanks to a loan from the company Suitable Technologies, use of such an invention is being piloted at Penn State in the form of the BeamPro Smart Presence System, which allows individuals to be remotely present anywhere through a robot that can be driven around via a computer application.

"There's never been a technology that affords you this kind of freedom, and I think it changes the way that we will eventually collaborate or communicate over distances,” said Chris Stubbs, manager of emerging technology and media at Penn State Teaching and Learning with Technology (TLT).

So far, faculty, staff and students have been trying the BeamPro out at not only Penn State University Park, but also at Penn State Lehigh Valley and Penn State DuBois, and several use cases have come about.

For about a year and a half, TLT has had two BeamPro robots on an open loan to figure out how they can be used in education and to determine the interest level for such technologies at Penn State, according to Stubbs. As of right now, long-term plans to use the robots are still to be determined, and TLT is looking to do some research in the near future on the vast array of ways the robots can be used in education.

At Penn State Lehigh Valley, the robot was used in a variety of ways during the end of the spring semester.

"Our campus is a perfect place for the Beam because our faculty are interested in technology and are always looking for ways to integrate it into their classes,” said Kate Morgan, director of virtual education at Penn State Lehigh Valley. “Additionally, we are located in a modern three-story building that has full wireless capability. The robot could navigate the entire campus, including the elevators, as long as someone pushed the buttons. Plus, we had many events toward the end of the semester that were prime for testing the Beam technology.”

One successful event where the BeamPro was used was the regional Forum on Black Affairs (FOBA) Conference. As part of the day’s activities, there was a tour of the campus and reception at the art gallery.

“Our gallery was featuring a collaboration between a poet and a painter, both were unable to be present to discuss their work, but we really wanted to highlight this special exhibit,” Morgan said.

Thanks to the technology, internationally-known poet Marilyn Nelson, who lives in Connecticut, was able to be present via Skype, and Philadelphia-based painter Holly Brigham was able to discuss her art via the Beam robot.

“Brigham literally moved around the exhibit discussing each piece of artwork and answered questions from the crowd, and Nelson was able to read her poetry for the visitors, in her own voice, and discuss the inspiration and symbolism in her work,” said Morgan. “And both artists were able to talk to each other as well.”

Other events the Beam was used for during its two-month stay at Penn State Lehigh Valley included an undergraduate research symposium during which the campus director of academic affairs was able to interact with students and discuss their projects; an awards ceremony where a student used the Beam, which was adorned with a Penn State bow tie, to greet parents and families as they entered the ceremony; and an event about domestic abuse and relationships where a domestic abuse survivor used the Beam to tell her story from an undisclosed location.

In addition, a student who was not able to make it to campus met with her academic adviser through the Beam, Morgan said. Through the Beam’s screen, the student was able to share her computer screen to show her transfer credits and class schedule, and while this could have been done through a computer, the student reported enjoying working with the technology of the Beam and said it enhanced the experience.

Faculty and students at Penn State Lehigh Valley also used the Beam for fun. One instructor delivered a test to her class via a basket attached to the Beam and gave instructions through the screen.

Another time, an avatar was created that looked like the Nittany Lion and the Beam rolled around the halls interacting with students, faculty and staff. “What a great way to start a ‘virtual’ tour,” Morgan said. “We could use that in the future.”

Another valuable use Morgan envisioned for the Beam could be for a student who could not be on campus due to a mid-semester sickness or family emergency. For someone who is in that situation, the Beam could be beneficial because it allows the user to ‘walk’ around, interact and participate in small groups. “That type of access to education could help so many students,” said Morgan.

In the future, Morgan said she hopes to get a BeamPro for her campus, as she sees an array of possibilities beyond the uses of the robot this past semester.

“Lion Ambassadors could conduct tours, Career Services could use it for mock interviews with companies located anywhere, and foreign language classes could invite native language speakers located internationally to engage in the classroom. That’s just the beginning,” she said. “The future of interaction involves technology like the BeamPro and to have the opportunity to expose our students to it as undergraduates is one more way to prepare them for the millennial workplace.”

At Penn State DuBois, the fun side of the Beam was explored over the summer with younger students since most of the college students were taking online classes.

Sueann Doran, outreach program and summer youth program coordinator at the DuBois campus, used the Beam in robotics classes and other courses in both the Kids in College program, which is geared toward elementary school students, and the Art, Science, and Technology Institute, which is for older, pre-secondary education students.

"We ended up just using it more as a novelty to let the kids see this type of technology,” said Doran.

When the older students were having Lego competitions, the Beam was operated to easily move between chairs. Through the Beam, Doran said she was able to see what they were doing from her office down the hall and interact with them while they were making their projects.

"We had one student operate it a little bit, and he was just totally fascinated with it,” Doran said. “He loved just going up and down the hall."

This student, who was in fifth grade, was walking down the hall when he saw the Beam being used, so he was invited in the classroom. In no time at all, the student was able to use the controls and maneuver the robot back down the hall.

During the summer classes, students generally seemed to enjoy the technology, with the exception of some of the younger students, who were a little afraid of it and called Doran “the creepy lady” as they saw her “disembodied” head walking down the hall. Doran said she tried to keep the Beam away from the younger students and only let the older kids around it, who enjoyed playing with the technology.

For the fall, Doran said her campus has asked to use the Beam again for their Best Robotics Competition that takes place in the gymnasium. To have someone on Skype in the gymnasium would be a lot more difficult, Doran explained, and the Beam is great in a large crowd, where the people on both ends can hear each other very well.

In the future, Doran said her campus would need to have instructors look at the Beam and consider its use, especially if classes need an expert who cannot be there in person. She said she considered bringing in a NASA expert to speak, but it was too late.

“I’d love to have it again for the kids’ programs, but to be able to plan better and pursue that NASA idea I had or some other person who could be identifiable by the students. Because it would be more than just about the robot itself, or about the technology — it would be partially about the technology, but the actual use of that technology.”

Anyone interested in trying out a BeamPro robot for a class, department or campus can contact TLT at

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated August 29, 2016