Name: Omar Ansari
Hometown: Cameron, SC
Major: Computer Science
Magellan Program: Magellan Scholar (2015)
Magellan Projects: "The use of remote telepresence in collegiate classrooms to facilitate eLearning"
Magellan Mentor: Dr. Jenay Beer, Computer Science and Engineering
Meet “BEAM.” He has two wheels, no arms, and he is helping Magellan Scholar Omar Ansari
find ways to improve eLearning.
“In our field, we are using computers/robots as tools for humans to meet their goals,” Omar said. “Without having a conversation with other people and finding out their needs, the software or hardware won’t be used. Without users, the tools we develop are worthless.”
This human connection is actually something Omar picked up on after changing his major to Computer Science. He grew up wanting to be a doctor – “I knew I always wanted to help people so I thought medicine would be the way to go,” he says. He took some Computer Science courses his sophomore year and began to get interested in the field. He got involved with research in Dr. Jenay Beer’s Assistive Robotics and Technology (ART) Lab and realized that Computer Science could be a way to help people, too.
Omar started with a lot of ideas for a potential project. “The overall theme of my project ideas was assisting those with disabilities,” he said. “Dr. Beer was really great with providing resources to see which project made the most sense. We eventually arrived at the idea of using the BEAM for students with disabilities to attend class who otherwise may not have been able to. Traditionally, these students would have to use strictly online courses if they were not able to attend class in person.”
Omar is now studying the BEAM in action, assessing its effectiveness both by observing its use in the classroom and by surveying students, faculty, and staff about their interactions with it. “The BEAM is a telepresence robot,” Omar said. “You could think of it as essentially ‘Skype on wheels.’ A user is able to log into the BEAM, view the BEAM's surroundings, and move with their keyboard and mouse. The user's face is also displayed on the robot.”
Omar says working in the ART Lab has been a great experience. “We're a very close knit group and help each other whenever the need arises. All of us are working on projects that involve using technologies to improve the lives of people. Some of the researchers focus on assisting older adults, while some focus on assisting elementary school students.”
What’s next for Omar and BEAM? Omar says there are many other directions to take telepresence education research – building systems that are dedicated specifically for use in a college classroom, upgrading things like camera resolution, etc. But one big thing BEAM could use is some arms. “We can't get to the second floor of Swearingen without waiting outside of the elevator and asking some passerby to press the elevator button. It would be nice if we could do that ourselves!” he said.