Biobehavioral health program connects students and faculty through technology

New Kensington and Greater Allegheny campuses purchase robots to increase interaction and collaboration
Students in class interact with robot

Penelope Morrison, assistant professor of biobehavioral health at Penn State New Kensington, interacts with students at the Penn State Greater Allegheny campus via a Beam telepresence robot. The shared biobehavioral health program at the campuses acquired two robots thanks to a grant from Penn State's Teaching and Learning with Technology REACH initiative. Each campus has a robot which allows Morrison and fellow faculty member Kristal Tucker, assistant professor of biology at the Greater Allegheny campus, to "shorten the distance" between distance learning classes.

Credit: Kristal Tucker

NEW KENSINGTON, Pa. – Students in Penn State New Kensington’s biobehavioral health (BBH) program welcomed a new classmate this fall. Thanks to modern technology, the program’s first BEAM robot, known as “Tammy Lynne Sue,” will help students connect with other BBH students at the University’s Greater Allegheny campus, which shares the baccalaureate degree program.  

Because the program is shared between the campuses, Penelope Morrison, assistant professor of biobehavioral health at the New Kensington campus, and Kristal Tucker, assistant professor of biology at Penn State Greater Allegheny, collaborated to find a way to revise their current classes delivered via a polycom distance learning platform. The courses, taught by the faculty, are live to students at their respective campuses and online through video stream provided through polycom at the other campus.  

Penn State’s Teaching and Learning with Technology’s (TLT) REACH (Re-Imagine, Engage, Align, Change) initiative was able to help Morrison and Tucker realize their goal of bringing students at both campuses together.  

“When we met with the TLT team, we stressed upon them our desire to ‘shorten’ the distance between our classrooms at Greater Allegheny and New Kensington,” explained Morrison. “We wanted technology that would allow us to have more interaction with our students on the receiving end of the polycom and to try and make our courses as dynamic and interactive as a solely 'in-person' course.” 

The TLT team suggested multiple possibilities, but Morrison and Tucker agreed that having a BEAM telepresence robot at each campus would allow for increased interaction and collaboration for both faculty members and students in the program. 

Tammy, New Kensington’s robot, was named as a nod to Morrison and Tucker’s southern upbringing. Greater Allegheny’s robot is called Jarvis after a comic book character who always assists others. 

The faculty members have already had Tammy and Jarvis visit in their classes, mostly during discussion and activity periods, but Morrison is planning more. 

“I am going to allow my students to use it to attend Greater Allegheny's health science club meetings if they like, and Greater Allegheny’s students can use it to attend our BBH club meetings,” said Morrison. “This is great because it gives students in the shared program the opportunity to meet and build relationships.” 

The modern technology is allowing for the program and its students at both campuses to explore new opportunities in strategic, impactful and meaningful ways. 

“How we do everything is changing, and technology is an integral part of that,” said Morrison. “In this case, the robot seemed to be the perfect solution, helping Dr. Tucker and I build the BBH program into a strong, cohesive program where, yes, the classes are shared between Greater Allegheny and New Kensington, but students don’t feel that distance, or at least it is minimized as much as possible. I think technology can help us do great things and it can improve our teaching and the quality of education we provide students – but it has to be done in such a way that makes sense.”