'Hey, Merlyn': New virtual assistant helping teachers, students in Waynesboro schools

John Irwin
Waynesboro Record Herald

As technology keeps advancing and becomes more and more integrated into the lives of its users, researchers and developers are taking the next step into bringing voice-activated assistants into the world of academia. 

And that technology has come to classrooms in the Waynesboro Area School District.

"This company actually was started to address how can you bring AI (artificial intelligence) and voice technology into classrooms in a private and secure way," said Levi Belnap, chief strategy officer for Merlyn Mind. 

Merlyn was born out of the questions on how to teach with AI and give a helping hand to teachers. 

"So much energy is going into the classroom into managing all the tools, all the tech and all the apps, all of the stuff that's around the human connection of teaching and we looked at how could AI and voice control simplify all of that so that the teacher could now say with one voice command, 'Hey Merlyn, start my lesson,' or 'Hey Meryln, switch to the quiz we're going to do today,'" Belnap said. 

Symphony Classroom, by Merlyn Mind, acts as an AI hub for teachers to connect to all of their devices. 

The Symphony Classroom unit and remote are pictured here.

"We don't think of it as a smart speaker, it definitely does have very powerful speakers in it but it is acting as an interface in the classroom to allow a teacher to connect to there front-of-room display, their laptop, all of the content on their computer so that they can now jump across all of those things with voice commands," Belnap said. 

In addition, a remote control is paired with the unit to allow teachers to use an air mouse, navigate through things with touch and remote commands. 

Merlyn Mind staff and Waynesboro Area School District staff first met at the Pennsylvania Educational Technology Expo & Conference in February at the Hershey Lodge. 

Read more:Top performers in baseball and softball in Franklin County

"It was clear this was a really good fit, a forward-looking district that was completely committed to both its teachers, students as well as the families and community and us who were looking for who are these leading-edge districts looking to really blaze the future for the rest of the United States," said Gus Schmedlen president and chief revenue officer. "It was just the biggest no-brainer that I've come across since my time here at Merlyn Mind."

To gauge potential interest from district teachers, WASD recently held a demonstration and info session on the units and had quite a good response.

According to WASD Director of Technology Nic Erickson, of the four sessions, 35 teachers attended and said they would like to use a Symphony Classroom in their classroom. After the sessions, requests for 20 additional units came in from teachers who were unable to attend the sessions, bringing the units into all six buildings in the district. 

"In total we have 55 teachers who want to use this. I'm in talks right now with maybe even trying one out at the Alma Beneficial House as well," said Erickson, referring to the school districts house used for teaching life skills to special-needs students. "I could easily get at least 50 more units placed in the district, no problem."

Symphony Classroom units are pictured here being installed at Fairview Elementary School by Pierson Computing Connection of Mechanicsburg.

First-grade teacher Eliza Resetar had the unit installed in her classroom.  

"Being a first-year teacher, I am open to any new opportunity that comes my way," she said. "When the district told us that we could pilot Merlyn Symphony Classroom, I jumped at the chance."

She said the new equipment has allowed her to interact with her students more.

"Given a way to access my laptop from anywhere in the classroom has provided a way to break the teacher-student barrier and not be stuck to one spot in the room," she said. "I can now stand in the midst of my class and change a slide, transition to a new tab, or play/pause media to talk about what they have learned.

One of her favorite features is telling Merlyn to set a timer.

"This is a huge advantage because I would have to walk away from a student that I am working one-on-one with to go set the timer," she said. Now I can quickly say, 'Hey Merlyn, set a timer for 5 minutes,' and continue the individual help that my student would need."

Read more:Old Home Week planning starts in Greencastle

Since announcing the product in 2021, Merlyn Mind has been working with schools across the country and abroad in pilot programs.

"We're working actively with our great partners like Waynesboro to say, 'What else do you want it to do, what doesn't work perfectly for your teachers, what else could it help them do in their daily work flows to save time and make them more effective as teachers?'" Belnap said.

WASD first-grade teacher Angie Cales, who has 20 years of teaching experience, shared her thoughts on using the new technology in her classroom. 

"Teachers are having more and more piled on their plate, and anything that can save time and maximize efficiency is worth trying," Cales said. "Merlyn really serves two audiences — the teacher and the learners.  Merlyn can help me switch between my laptop, my document camera, Apple TV and Promethean board. It can also switch between open tabs in Chrome and can start and pause a YouTube instructional video all with a voice command. 

"My learners love asking Merlyn what the temperature is outside to know if they need to wear coats or not at recess or to ask what the largest ocean on Earth is," she said. "The voice command features of Merlyn allows educators to save valuable time during instruction and those minutes add up."

Zachary Rutta of Meryln Mind holds a demonstration session for teachers at Waynesboro Area Senior High School.

According to Schmedlen, the unit is projected to be in more than 500 classrooms by the end of June, and across the commonwealth with installations at five different school districts. 

Installation of the Waynesboro units was completed in late April. The purchase of the units was funded through a grant from the Pennsylvania Department of Education. For more information, visit www.merlyn.org.