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Virtual Walk For Graduation: Robots Could Help Graduates Experience Ceremony

Linda Williams made commencement caps and gowns for the robots of her virtual events planning business to wear during graduation ceremonies not help in person.
Linda Williams
Linda Williams made commencement caps and gowns for the robots of her remote event planning business to wear during graduation ceremonies not held in person.

As the coronavirus pandemic shutdown drags on, some schools are considering holding graduation in July or even August.

But two St. Louis entrepreneurs are offering another option: robots.

Linda Williams and Bryon Pierson are pitching a service to let graduates “walk” at their ceremonies with the help of a small team of remote-control robots.

Graduates “will navigate the robot up to the person that's handing out the diploma,” Williams said of the process. 

“They don't have arms, that's what they don't have, but everything else is them; their faces are on the screen, their voice is heard through the speakers,” she said. “They can say thank you and be heard. So it's really very, very much like them being there without being there.”

School districts throughout the region initially pushed commencements back to June. Now many have put placeholders on dates in July. But if July isn’t feasible, administrators admit holding a traditional ceremony may be too difficult to pull together.

Mehlville High School has a plan to hold graduation at Chaifetz Arena on July 19, after first pushing graduation from May 31 to late June.

“If we’re not able to do graduation at Chaifetz on the 19th,” Superintendent Chris Gaines said, “our senior students on the [graduation] committee seemed to express that if we got really past that and we got into August, that folks would begin to scatter probably a little bit too much and that there wasn’t much interest in trying to do something in August if we had to get to that point.”

Nearby Hancock Place has both June 24 and July 25 as possible graduation dates. Kirkwood has two possible dates as well: June 20 and July 11. Kirksville High School, in northeast Missouri, has slated Aug. 2 as its hopeful graduation date, according to the Kirksville Daily Express.

As Plan B of holding graduations was June, and if Plan C of moving them to July and August doesn’t materialize, that’s where Pierson and Williams, the entrepreneurs, think they have the next best thing at the ready.

The robots look a bit like an iPad on top of a Segway. 

Williams has designed caps and gowns to dress them up, which she calls “bot-stumes.” A student will dial into one of the robots and appear on the screen, navigate across the stage where an administrator will present a diploma, and pose for a picture. Then, after the robot rolls off stage, it’ll get back in line for a new student to dial into.

Pierson was inspired to offer help, in part, thinking back to his own graduation.

“I remember when I walked that I cried,” he said. “I cried when I walked in my graduation because I’m an ex-foster care kid.”

He founded a nonprofit focused on helping first-generation and minority students succeed in higher education; Williams runs a small remote event planning company. They met during an entrepreneurship training program through the Chamber of Commerce and got to talking and brainstorming when they realized the impacts of the shutdown and how they could help.

“Linda has these robots,” Pierson recalled. “So I was like, 'I bet I can design a way for students to be able to walk by using those robots.'”

Williams calls the caps and gowns she made for her robots "bot-stumes."
Credit Linda Williams
Williams calls the caps and gowns she made for her robots "bot-stumes."

Williams’ business plan is born out of her own experience of being far from family for special moments. Her family was scattered following Hurricane Katrina’s devastation of her hometown New Orleans. Williams resettled in St. Louis but wanted to bring those now living across the country together for her daughter’s baby shower.

Their first two clients are Williams’ grandson’s preschool class and the cohort of NPower technology training program, of which Pierson is an alumnus. 

They’ve had lots of conversations with school leaders but say plans are still too tentative for lots of bookings just yet. Williams and Pierson are offering the service for free to elementary and middle schools, with a sliding scale up to $1,500 for high schools, colleges and trade programs.

And, unlike humans, Williams’ robots have no hands that need to be washed after each diploma is handed out. Instead, she said they’ll be wiped down with Clorox at the end of every ceremony.

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @rpatrickdelaney

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org

Ryan was an education reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.