Robot Rivets Attention From Kids About Drugs

December 08, 1991|By Jodi Bizar | Jodi Bizar,Contributing writer

A 650-pound robot named Punchy showed up at St. Margaret's Catholic School in Bel Air Thursday.

And, the robot -- an unusual educational tool in the effort to get young children to steer clear of drug use as they grow up -- was a big hit with the kids.

"No way, Jose" was the response of the 250 children who jammed St. Margaret's gymnasium to listen to the robot's message.

The students -- third- through sixth-graders from St. Margaret's and St. Stephen's Catholic school -- pledged to turn away from illegal drugs such as crack, cocaine and marijuana.

The kids also pledged not to smoke cigarettes.

The robot and an accompanying hourlong anti-drug abuse program called "The Million Dollar Machine" was sponsored by the Edward J. DeBartolo Corp., a nationwide developer of shopping centers.The company has set a goal of getting the program to 150,000 students in 20 states this year. Eight schools in Maryland were chosen for the program, now in its fourth year.

The children cheered and laughed as Punchy, who plays rock 'n' roll and imitates movie star Arnold Schwarzenegger's voice, appealed to students to love themselves, avoid illegal drugs, and take care of their bodies -- the million dollar machine.

Punchy told the children they can achieve such career goals as becoming sports stars and astronauts if they follow that advice.

"The million dollar machine is the most amazing machine in the world," said Punchy. "It grows bigger, stronger and smarter every day.It can operate on the surface of the moon or the bottom of the ocean. It can even repair itself. I have great news, you are the million dollar machine."

St. Margaret's Assistant Principle Jane Dean said the school decided they wanted Punchy, after a school employee Darleen Gallagher saw the robot featured in a television program and suggested the program would an effective tool to educate students.

Dean said Gallagher was so impressed with the robot that she contacted program coordinators repeatedly for a year until they agreed to bring Punchy to St. Margaret's.

Paula Assero, assistant manager of the Glen Burnie Mall in Anne Arundel County, owned and operated by the DeBartolo Corp., said the company gets many requests for the robot program.

Schools that are persistent about landing the program are chosen. St. Margaret's is the only school in Harford that will be visited by the program this year. Students from St. Stephen's in Kingsville were invited to attend Thursday's program.

Assero said schools do not have to pay for the Million Dollar Machine program, which received the Presidential Award for Private Sector Initiatives in 1989. The corporation has footed the bill -- $1.5 million nationwide.

J. Sue Henry, coordinator of the Harford County Drug and Alcohol Impact Program, said the Million Dollar machine program program has not been evaluated by drug abuse experts to determine if it actually deters drug use.

However, she said anti-drug gimmicks such as robots help compliment other programs that St. Margaret's uses and that have deterred drug use.

"Robots and other gimmicks are the icing on the cake if you have a good, solid curriculum because gimmicks spark the childrens' interest," Henry said.

Starting in the second grade, St. Margaret's students begin learning about the dangerous effects of drug use through a program titled "Here's Looking at You 2000." The program attempts to steer children away from what are called "gateway drugs" such as marijuana, which can lead to the use of more dangerous or addictive drugs, Dean said. The program is repeated in the fourth grade with more detail.

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