A University of Montana professor won a national competition for her innovative approach to tackling education deserts in Montana — robots.

About a third of Montanans live 60 minutes or more from a college or university, according to a Chronicle of Higher Education study. Sara Rinfret, the chair of the department of public administration and policy, hopes that the robots will make education more accessible to people living in rural places.

About 50% of the almost 90 students in the master of public administration (MPA) program take classes online, and the robots allow them to have the same classroom experience as their peers.

These robots can be remotely controlled from anywhere with a decent Wi-Fi connection. So, students can roll around, or look in all directions, or talk with a group.

Rinfret brought the robots to the annual Network of Schools of Public Policy, Affairs and Administration (NASPAA) Voinovich Public Innovation Challenge, where she won, competing against three other finalists. The competition is named for Sen. George Voinovich, who died in 2016. Rinfret said he focused on innovation and access to education.

“They said that it was really nice giving back to what Sen. Voinovich really embodied,” she said.

The $3,500 prize will be enough to add a third robot to the collection, with the two she got in 2017. It should be in use by the spring semester. It will be named “George,” after the senator.

The MPA program isn’t the only one using robots at UM. “The College of Education has an entire fleet,” Rinfret said. “I think they have maybe over a dozen and they really, you know, helped spearhead the robot revolution.”

In fact, the college has more than a dozen: it has 20 robots, department chair John Matt said. Education has been using the robots for about five years now. People have connected to its robots from all around the world; from Montana, to Alaska, to Bangkok.

Right now, the robots at the Education School are only available for graduate students, as they don’t quite have the capacity to offer it to undergrads yet. Though, they have had as many as 44 students take classes using the robots in a semester, Matt said.

“It is difficult to determine if they have an impact on retention, because without remote access, the student wouldn't be able to take face-to-face classes,” Matt said in an email. However, College of Education Dean Adrea Lawrence said she would be surprised if it wasn’t improving things for students.

“I know it makes a difference,” Lawrence said. “It offers an access point they wouldn’t have already had.”

Lawrence recalled a time when a robot’s Segway battery died and the bot toppled over onto the ground. The two students beside it leaned over and asked, “Are you okay?” Even though, obviously, the actual person hadn’t fallen. She said that’s a great indicator of the immersion the robots give students.

Lawrence said that the robots allow students to be more immersed than they could through an online Moodle class. She said it offers them human connection.