This article originally appeared in The Business Journal.
Nina Mileto smiled as she held her tablet and interacted with Milo, a facially expressive humanoid robot, who asked her questions about the emotions behind various displayed facial expressions.
Milo is one of the several robots adopted into the Potential Development School for Students with Autism team. These assistive robots are designed to help students like Mileto, who may have complications with communication skills.
The robots ask a series of questions from different modules, with teachers and students able to communicate with the robots through their tablets.
“The robots are designed to assist our special education teachers as they guide our students with autism towards social and emotional mastery,” said Crissi Jenkins, director of development and community relations. “They are designed with five different modules that work with students with autism to work on a variety of social skills such as how to calm down, how to behave in certain social situations, [and] how to make eye contact.”
Each robot has a screen embedded on its chest, which displays features like vocabulary words and picture icons. Jenkins said she believes this is an important addition, as it involves technology the students have not seen before.
“These robots are having a tremendous impact on speech outcomes, educational therapy outcomes,” she said. “As educators our goal is to find those students with the best technology we can to reach their fullest potential and we believe these robots will do that.”
Potential Development, now educating 215 students across 19 local school districts, is using six of the RoboKind robots.
Community-sponsored robots like Milo are designed to assist teachers with educating students with a variety of essential skills through curriculums and modules downloaded on accompanying tablets.
Each robot is sponsored by different donors. Sponsors include Simon Roofing, Jason Kokrak of PGA Tour, Inc. the Florence Simon Beecher Foundation, the Ward Beecher Foundation, the Walter E. and Caroline H. Watson Foundation, the Panera Bread Foundation and The Cafaro Foundation.
Jenkins said the idea for the robots initially was introduced by one of Potential Development’s board members about 10 months ago.
The robots were first introduced into the class about two weeks ago, said Jenkins. In that period of time, she said she has seen remarkable connections with the robots.
“The students have welcomed the robots immediately,” she said. “The connection has been incredible…To watch them communicate and grow – our students communication is often very challenged, eye contact, holding conversations. So to see them engaging with the robots – holding their hands, hugging them, telling them they love them – has really been fantastic.”
Marleigh Gilyard, partnership success manager of RoboKind, said she joined the company in May of 2020.
“I have a younger brother that is on the autism-spectrum and he is going through transition age,” Gilyard said. “As he’s going through this, I started to recognize the need for social skills and social emotional learning and that really drew me to RoboKind and this curriculum, and this technology that teaches the curriculum.”
RoboKind, responsible for producing the robots, is a small business based out of Dallas, Texas. Gilyard said in her position there she gets to work with the students who use the robots and find out how well they are working at each location.
“I’ve seen incredible impact,” she said. “I have teachers tell me all the time that they wish they had this tool in their classroom. We’ve had students minimally verbal and non-verbal students begin to develop speech and engage with their families for the first time. We’ve seen some really cool things.”
Gilyard said although there have been hundreds of school districts that have implemented robots across the globe. She said she often hears teachers complimenting the ease of using this technology.
“We have research that talks about the engagement rate, so we know these robots engage students at a rate of 87.5% of the time verses just 2% to 3% with a human therapist alone,” Gilyard said. “When we have students that are excited about working with the robots and they’re zoned in, we are able to better facilitate that learning.”
Current modules include calm down, conversational, emotional understanding and situational, Gilyard said, although they are now working on a new hygiene lesson, which will focus on things like washing hands and hand placement.
Additionally, Gilyard said this technology is something she wishes was available when her brother was younger to help him along his development journey.
“I constantly wish that he had technology like this in his classroom when he was growing up to prepare him for this life,” she said. “As we talk about transition, yes this curriculum is tailored towards teaching these early education students, but as they grow – emotional regulation, the ability to calm yourself down and communicate with the world around you are some of the most important skills that we can teach our students.”
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