Alex Molito has spent most of the last month receiving treatment for a rare condition at Johns Hopkins Children’s Center in Baltimore. But on Thursday, the 14-year-old boy got a much-welcomed break from the norm with a chance to explore the world outside the hospital walls.
Molito was virtually transported to the Field Museum via a roving robot.
Using a phone, Molito was able to control the robot — which looked like a tablet on wheels — as it zoomed around the dinosaur hall of the Field’s Evolving Planet exhibition.
Molito’s eyes grew in awe as he saw the skull of a real Tyrannosaurus rex, his favorite dinosaur. He was even more stunned when he drove the robot into the next room, which featured Sue the T. rex in all her glory.
Those moments were easily Alex’s favorite part of the roughly half-hour tour. He also appeared to have enjoyed his tour guide showing him fossils and the size difference between a herbivore’s tooth versus a carnivore.
Overall, he called the interactive experience “very cool.”
“It was a nice mixture to the day,” said Molito, who said controlling the robot was like playing a video game. “It wasn’t too hard.”
His mother said the opportunity to experience the Field Museum through a wandering robot is a “game changer.”
“It was nice for him to be able to do something [different],” Meg Molito said. “It keeps his mind away from what’s going on.”
The Field Museum, like many other cultural institutions, has incorporated more virtual experiences into its lineup of activities amid the pandemic, but this program is even more unique, according to Jeff Schroder, the Field Museum’s public learning experiences coordinator, who led Molito’s tour.
“To bring a kid into the museum is so cool,” Schroder said. “I’ve done so many tours in person but... just having someone be here who couldn’t otherwise — it definitely makes you feel good, and I’m so glad for them that they can do it.”
The innovative virtual tour was made possible by the WeGo Foundation, an organization founded in 2017 with the goal of providing pediatric inpatients the opportunity to “escape their hospital beds.”
“Through WeGo, kids are able to regain a sense of autonomy and normalcy as they drive our robots around attractions,” WeGo managing director and founder Galen Shi explained in a statement. “It is a transformative experience for the kids and their families. For 30 minutes, they are no longer the center of attention because they are sick. Instead, they are the center of attention because they are robots at the Field Museum.”
The Field Museum — one of WeGo’s first partners in the Midwest — recently launched the program and plans to start by giving six to 10 virtual tours to pediatric inpatients each month, with the hopes of adding more in the near future.
WeGo currently engages with young patients at 11 pediatric hospitals across the county, according to its website, but is looking to expand its network of hospitals and museums in the near future, said Rudy Albsmeyer, senior manager of public learning experiences at the Field Museum.
“That’s something that we’re really excited about, of course, is to see if we can bring Chicago local hospitals into their network,” he added.
Alex’s mother said the family “absolutely will” be visiting Chicago when he’s discharged. It’s Alex’s hope that trip will include an in-person visit to the Field Museum.