A robot has caused quite a stir at Medford Vocational Technical High.
Meet Richbot 3000.
He zooms through the halls and classrooms, turns left and right, and can carry on a conversation. He was built by 17-year-old student Hunter Raymond and named after Richard Cormio, the teacher who inspired the project. Thanks to the robot, Cormio was able to teach class from his home this past fall.
When Cormio, 58, a 1975 graduate of the school and its electrical teacher for the past nine years, was diagnosed with myelofibrosis, a rare bone marrow cancer, he was forced to take a leave of absence from the job — and the students — that he loved. The school days marched on without him and Cormio felt disconnected.
“I wasn’t that familiar with all the students because I had to leave so early in 2013,’’ said Cormio.
“I was awfully sad,’’ said Raymond, a senior in the electrical program who had developed a close relationship with Cormio over the years. “I knew he wouldn’t be able to teach for a while. So that was a really big driving factor in making this robot.’’
Cormio, a father of three and grandfather of one, received a stem-cell transplant and was required to remain quarantined in his home for a year due to a compromised immune system. After a while, he was anxious to get back to work and felt strong enough to do so. The teachers tried Skyping him in, said Heidi Riccio, the school’s principal, but the stationary tablet didn’t provide the best experience for Cormio.
“He couldn’t see who was asking the questions,’’ Raymond said. “It was kind of frustrating.’’
Then Adam Burns, Cormio’s co-teacher, made a comment to Raymond that sparked an idea.
“He said we should make a webcam that would move left and right so Mr. Cormio could see the whole class as he was teaching,’’ Raymond said. “I thought, ‘Yeah, that would be a cool idea.’’’
Cool, and daunting.
“The idea of building a robot and having it be able to be controlled from someone else’s house across the city was a pretty crazy idea to think of,’’ he said.
Although Raymond had never taken a class in robotics, he decided to go for it. Over the next six weeks, he spent about 40 hours creating Richbot 3000.
“He worked far beyond the normal school day,’’ his principal said. “He went home and went online and researched.’’
He researched. He wrote — and rewrote — code. He tinkered with the technology. He consulted his teachers. He was even able to bounce ideas off of an engineer at Tapjoy in Cambridge, thanks to a program at the school called TEALS, which places volunteer engineers in high school classrooms across the country.
“Medford has a very rich history of vocational education,’’ said Ricco, who began working at the school in 2013. “But one thing that came to me as I came here is, it was your traditional 1970s vocational school.’’
Introducing robotics and engineering to the school curriculum, as well as the TEALS program, which has brought engineers from Google, Vecna, and Tapjoy into her classrooms, has helped catapult the school into the 21st century.
“It’s a very exciting time for Medford Vocational with all of these programs,’’ Riccio said.
She’s especially excited about the TEALS program, which has inspired so many of her students.
“They’re young, they’re hip, they’re in their early 30s and late 20s, so they can relate to these kids,’’ Riccio said about the volunteer engineers from the community.
Ben Jones, 29, from Watertown, is one of those volunteers. The Tapjoy engineer assisted Raymond with Richbot 3000.
“I think it’s great,’’ said Jones about Raymond’s invention. “I think what brought Hunter above the rest of the kids was sort of his drive to do this. I think they’re all probably capable of doing it, but he really put the time and the effort in. He designed the system and I was basically there to provide him support and answer sort of any questions.’’
As the robot came to life, Raymond Skyped Cormio with updates on its progress.
“It was amazing,’’ Cormio said.
Then came testing day. Raymond set up a computer with a camera in the engineering room and drove the robot out into the hall. Students saw the robot roll by with Raymond’s face on its screen. They stopped and asked, “Hunter, is that you?’’ Raymond was able to turn the robot to the students and reply. Choruses of “That is so cool!’’ rung out in the hall.
“I was in the hall watching because I wanted to see their reaction,’’ said Sam Christy, the robotics and engineering teacher. “It was really fun to see.’’
In November, Cormio taught his first class using Richbot 3000. He was delighted.
“It was just crazy the way you could walk around the room and talk to the kids and be face-to-face with them,’’ Cormio said.
He taught using Richbot 3000 for two months before returning to school in January. Cormio said he’s glad to be back in the classroom and his health is improving every day.
“Right now I feel great,’’ he said. “I feel strong.’’
Richbot 3000 lives in the robotics room.
“We want to make him a real useful part of the school,’’ Christy said. “People who are out, ideally, could use a robot to interact with the classroom. Or maybe we want to interview someone who can’t be here.’’
Creating Richbot 3000 has changed Raymond’s life.
“Before this year, I wanted to go into a career where I built computers,’’ he said. “But this year completely changed things. I built a robot and that appealed to me so much more than building computers. It just shows me personally that I can do it. And, going out into college next year, it kind of gives me that confidence I needed.’’
He now wants to pursue a career in a field relevant to robotics.
Cormio is proud of Raymond — and also grateful.
“It helped me get to know the students better and that was very important in my healing,’’ he said.