Kevin Good, UMF special education instructor, with “Circuit,” one of two telepresence robots making virtual UMF internships a reality anywhere. (UMF image)

FARMINGTON — Internships are proven to open the door to high-level professional experience and ultimately to jobs. But how do education students at the University of Maine at Farmington intern in southern Maine without leaving home?

They use robots, of course.

At least that’s what’s happening with “Project Circuit,” a new pilot program in UMF Instructor Kevin Good’s special education course this spring. His students are working with RSU 21 (Arundel, Kennebunk, Kennebunkport) Assistive Technology Coordinator Hillary Goldthwait-Fowles and students in special education using telepresence robots – one at UMF and one in Kennebunk.

Hillary Goldthwait-Fowles, RSU 21 assistive technology coordinator, walks a Project Circuit robot to the next classroom visit. (Submitted image)

The robots provide two-way communication so UMF students in Good’s course can learn from and interact with teachers, occupational therapists, physical therapists, speech pathologists and other special education professionals working in the classroom. As with any internship, students and professionals in both locations are able to make observations, ask questions and collaborate.

“Internships are essential learning tools for pre-service teachers, but require extra time, funds and travel on the part of students,” said Good.

“Project Circuit makes virtual internships a reality so now UMF isn’t just in central Maine, but everywhere we can send a robot,” he said.

Maine has a significant shortage of special education teachers and the virtual internship program will provide students with additional real-world classroom experience. Special education students also have two in-the-classroom practicum field experiences during their time at UMF where they work with mentor teachers.

Project Circuit is student-driven with class projects determined by what the UMF students experience. They are able to make suggestions to help the students in RSU 21 and create a plan using assistive technology that will help students learn and be more independent.

Key to the program’s success is UMF’s leadership in the area of assistive technology (AT), with the only public or private university-based assistive technology lending and demonstration center in Maine.  AT is any device or product that makes it easier for someone with a disability to live more independently and safely, work, learn and move around their community.

Good moved to Maine from Virginia so he could work with UMF’s AT Collection and help leverage technology in innovative ways across the state. UMF’s partnership with the Department of Education’s Maine CITE Program helps make AT available to Maine citizens with disabilities. The UMF telepresence robots were paid for with grant funding from the Maine CITE organization.

UMF’s unique Center for Assistive Technology is located in the University’s Theodora J. Kalikow Education Center. AT devices at the UMF Center are free to loan to educators and individuals with disabilities and their families, so they can see what’s available and learn how to use them. These can include items like smart home devices, 3-D printers, Braille devices and adaptive gaming devices like the new Xbox Adaptive Controller.

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