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Teachers Helpers: Humanoid Robots and Robotic Toys in the Classroom

Robots don’t just assist with complex medical procedures and explore the deepest regions of space: They also help kids learn in the classroom. They befriend children who are too shy to talk to their classmates, and can hold the attention of students who otherwise have trouble focusing.

Educators use robot helpers in different ways. Some robots work with individual students, while others help the entire class. Here are a few ways you can find Evo’s friends lending a hand at school.  

Robots Make Autistic Students More Comfortable

One of the main uses of robot helpers is to assist special needs students and learners who fall on the autism spectrum. Blue Frog Robotics is the parent company of Buddy, a companion robot who works to develop social skills with kids in a low-stress environment.

“Children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) often have a striking lack of interest and ability to interact, limited ability to communicate, and show repetitive behaviours and distress when confronted with changes,” they write. “For most of us it is pretty hard to imagine what it must be like not to be able to decode body language, facial expressions, or the significance of personal space.”

Robots Make Autistic Students More Comfortable

The small robot tells stories and does exercises with the children, never getting impatient, tired or bored. Buddy’s humanoid expressions and movements make students want to please him and get questions right, learning social interaction skills in the meantime.

Buddy isn’t the first robot to work with kids on the autism spectrum. NAO by Softbank Robotics is a robot who has been at work since 2006, and there are more than 10,000 of these humanoid robots helping people around the world.

Softbank also built Pepper, the first emotional humanoid robot, who helps in hospitals and other medical situations. As children spend time with the robot and develop social skills, they grow more comfortable engaging with adults. Today a child is talking to a robot, but soon he or she will be able to hold a conversation with a parent or teacher.  

In an article for the Perspecs, Diane Cooke reported that Pepper and NAO are already accepting jobs in the classroom in Singapore. These two robots served as assistant teachers in a seven-month trial in two preschools in 2016, while smaller robot toys were distributed to 160 nurseries. The robotic assistant teachers focused on developing communication, collaboration, and other valuable social skills in children.   

Kids Are Captivated By Their Robot Friends

As robots become more advanced, they start to look, move, and react like humans. Rebecca Hill at Parentmap wrote about Milo, an expressive robot from Robokind who is especially helpful with kids on the autism spectrum.

The foot-high robot’s reactions and expressive eyes are captivating to kids who interact with it. Hill shares the story of a child whose attention wandered when working with a therapist; the same boy never once took his eyes off Milo. The robot’s speech is 20 percent slower than normal human speech and it repeats words and phrases as often as required.   

There is a secondary benefit to these helper robots: they turn school into a positive experience. Instead of students worrying about talking to their peers or feeling out of place, they return to class excited to see NAO, Buddy, or Milo and ready to learn from them again.

Kids Are Captivated By Their Robot Friends | Milo

Non-Humanoid Robots Also Connect With Students

While many school robots are built to look like humans, other types of robots are still able to connect with students.

Leka is a robot designed to help students with special needs, but doesn’t have the arms, legs, and torso you see in most robots. This robot has a pair of big, curious eyes, and its body shape is closer to that of a basketball or Roomba than to a person.

However, its body type doesn’t make Leka any less effective. Leka is mobile, with a spherical shape that allows it to glide around easily. It can talk and display images on its screen, express emotions through colors and sounds, and react to children.

Leka becomes a companion to help kids who might feel isolated because of their unique needs.

Other developers completely rejected the humanoid concept to make the robot seem more approachable to kids of different backgrounds. The creators of Cubetto, for example, originally created a toy car to help young kids learn the basics of patterns and programming. However, they discovered that many parents still associate toy cars with boys.

They ended up developing a box on wheels with a smiling face to give kids the freedom and creativity to approach the robot regardless of their gender. Now, the robot is a spaceship, a pet, or a best friend. It can become anything to anyone, as long as the child using it is eager to learn.

Non-Humanoid Robots Also Connect With Students

Robots Help Students Learn in a Variety of Ways

Robots don’t just benefit special needs students. They help students of all abilities learn different concepts, from hard skills such as multiplication tables to soft skills like collaboration.

Robots Help Students Explore Different Solutions

Editor of The Edvocate, Dr. Matthew Lynch explains that robots help with problem-based learning. Kids are naturally drawn to the bots as toys, and playing becomes a learning experience.

Robot learning is effective when students are given problems to solve in order to get the robot to take different actions. These might include having the bot dance or follow a drawn line to complete a path.

Robots Let Students Talk, Move, and Play

There’s another reason why robots engage students and keep them focused on lessons: robots offer a break from traditional classroom learning.

Educators know that having kids sit still all day isn’t the best way to keep them interested in lesson plans. Donna De La Cruz at the New York Times is an advocate for getting kids to move so they can learn and explore on their own. She cites various studies that show how kids who are allowed to move throughout the day show greater cognitive function, perform better on standardized tests, and do better in school.

Moving wakes up the brain and invites kids to learn, meaning they are more receptive to educational messages and are more likely to remember them. If a robot friend encourages kids to move, those kids are more likely to remember lessons tied to the activities.  

Robots Can Affect a Child’s Personality

Robots can also improve child behavior and teach valuable life lessons. As robots step into classrooms and help students, they have significant impacts on the behavioral responses of students, for better or for worse, Timothy Revell writes at New Scientist.

He cites one study with a robot named Tega, where a group of students competed to finish a puzzle against it. Half of the students saw Tega’s “neutral” personality, while the other half experienced his “can-do” attitude where he encouraged himself to try harder and praised the students for their hard work. The researchers found that students who experienced the “cheerleader Tega” were more determined to succeed and didn’t give up when the tasks were tough.

There’s a reason so many robot developers are trying to make their creations as human-like as possible: their robot personalities affect kids long after lessons end.

Kids Often Feel Like Robots Have Interests and Feelings

Robot developers need their teaching robots to present a sense of agency to kids, meaning kids should be able to feel like the robot is human-like — even if it’s in the shape of a ball. If kids think the robot can experience feelings, get hungry, and react to different stimuli, then they are more likely to trust it and listen to what it has to say.

This idea of robot-human perception is based on findings by Kimberly Brink, Ph.D., cognitive scientist at the University of Michigan. In one experiment, Brink studied how 67 three-year-olds interacted with robots and asked them how they felt about their robot friends. The children observed one robot naming objects correctly and another naming them incorrectly. When asked which robot they trusted more to name objects unfamiliar to the children, they overwhelmingly chose the robot that had correctly labeled the known objects.

MIT Media Lab graduate student Jacqueline Kory Westlund also provides key examples of robot perception by kids. She brought a robot named Mox to show and tell at a preschool, which she controlled in another room by speaking through a microphone. After the children were told how the robot worked and that it was being operated by a person, a five-year-old asked if he could teach it (not the robot’s human operator) how to make a paper airplane.

“Children ascribed physical attributes to robots—they can move, they can see, they can feel tickles—but also mental attributes: thinking, feeling sad, wanting companionship,” Kory Westlund writes. “A robot could break, yes, and it is made by a person, yes, but it can be interested in things.”

This attribution of human characteristics and behaviors to objects is known as anthropomorphism, and it isn’t new nor is it limited to children. By suspending disbelief, adults watching BB8 in Star Wars or Weebo in Flubber see those robots as able to experience pain, hope, and love.

Teachers Can Partner With AI Bots to Run Classrooms

Finland, a country that prides itself on its education standards, is currently testing robot teachers. Humanoid robots were sent into math and foreign language classrooms across the country to better understand how students learn with them, Malek Murison at Internet of Business writes.

Interestingly, one of the main problems these bots are facing is development. The needs of teachers and uses for the robots significantly outweigh their programming and apps. The future of robotic teachers may rely on AI and machine learning to adapt to individual teacher classroom plans and goals.  

“Students all learn differently, and a good teacher must attempt to deliver lessons in a way that resonates with every child in the classroom,” Kristin Houser, senior editor at Futurism, writes. “AI and automated systems could have collaborative roles in the education system. That would enable teachers and students to take advantage of the tech in ways that will benefit them both, and we wouldn’t need to worry about lack of oversight for when our AI systems do encounter problems.”

As these robots develop, they will become valuable classroom assistants, but it’s unlikely that they would ever fully take over the job of teaching.

Robot Assistants Perform Different Classroom Tasks

Robots don’t just help with learning, they also serve as an extra set of eyes and ears in the classroom. Tech reporter Lora Kolodny says one robot, Robota, took last year’s TechCrunch Disrupt Hackathon in New York by storm. Developed by sophomores at Rutgers University to help teachers in special ed classrooms, the social robot follows a four step process:

  • Identifies students who are distressed, upset, or angry.
  • Asks them what is wrong and why they are upset.
  • Processes the student response and translates it into text.
  • Determines whether a teacher response is necessary.

Robota can also send email and text alerts to parents if they need to be made aware of the situation. This reduces the burden on teachers who can’t be everywhere at once, while shortening the time a student spends upset without intervention.

“Research shows that children can benefit from interacting with robots, but it’s important to recognize that these benefits are less pronounced than those a child would get from interacting with a person,” Solace Shen, Ph.D., user experience researcher at Robinhood Financial, says. “The goal is not to have the robot replace interactions with humans, but more to supplement them.”

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