Telepresence robot helping Blue Valley student attend class while fighting cancer

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OVERLAND PARK, Kan. -- There's a classroom at one metro high school with a high-tech visitor.

A student battling cancer is using a robot to help her take in classes in real time, kind of like using Apple Facetime in a high school class.

When Ari Burris, 15, was diagnosed with ovarian cancer this summer, she never imagined a robot would come to her aid. She`s an honor student at Blue Valley High School, and takes her education seriously. Ari`s Dad, Brian, learned about Beam robots, which can be used for telepresence in the corporate world. Now, Ari-bot is Ari`s live look into courses like this honors chemistry class.

Every morning, Belle, Ari's twin sister, brings Ari-bot to life. The robot is about four feet tall, with a tablet-like screen as a head and rollers on its bottom, which allow Ari-bot, as the family has nicknamed it, to roam the school under supervision.

"Come on, Ari," Belle commanded the robot, as it popped forward from its docking station in one of the school's offices.

Ari can control Ari-bot from home, which is a few miles away from the high school, and attend classes like a normal student does, leaving cancer behind for a little while.

"Ari, we're going to look at today on the unit syllabus," Manal Weidel, an honors-level science teacher at the school, said while addressing the robot's screen.

Cancer remains a big concern for the Burris family. Ari missed a lot of school while having treatment for 29 ovarian tumors oncologists discovered. The Burrisses said Ari can't attend school while her immunity levels are low, since taking the risk of getting sick could result in missing chemotherapy visits.

"I was worried. We found out late in the summer. How would that affect my school life and stuff?" Ari said.

The robot is still the property of the company that makes them. The website for Beam Robotics says robots, such as the one the Burrisses are using, costs $2,100. Beam is allowing Ari's family to use it at no cost. The Blue Valley School District doesn't own robots like this one. Ari's classmates and teachers love it because it keeps her connected in her community.

"It's helped me be able to stay in public schools and not have to be home-schooled," Ari Burriss said. "This allows me to see people. In class, if people come up to me, I'll try to answer."

"It's not like a robot to me. It's just Ari. I just have normal conversations with her, and I'll say, 'Hey, what's up.' I'll make a silly face and she'll text me and say, 'I saw that," Emily Cummings, Ari's classmate, said.

Wiedel added "when you think about little things kids have missed, and how hard it is for them to catch up, for this student to be so committed and so vested, in making sure she doesn't miss out on being at school, I think it's phenomenal."

It`s hard to say if Aribot helps Ari through the healing process. Brian Burris, who has five kids, says he`s pleased this helps his family feel like they`re one cohesive unit rather than being separated by sickness.

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