At the Shaler Academy in Ridgewood, pre-K pupils sing and act out the motions of "Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes" with a NAO robot and Mary Ellen Paradiso, the school's speech and language specialist. The humanoid robot is part of a pilot program at the school to help students with autism and other special needs.
WOULD YOU LIKE TO PLAY AGAIN?" asks the diminutive robot named Peter.
Several of the 3- and 4-year-olds in the pre-K/kindergarten class are excited about the prospect.
"Yes, robot!" "Let's do it again!" "I love this robot!" they call out.
"Can you show me a dog?" asks Peter as the classroom teacher nods to the child whose turn it is to answer. The little girl walks to the front of the room, picks up a card with a photo of a dog and holds it in front of the robot's "eyes."
"Well done," Peter says calmly, slowly raising his fist in a victory salute.
All of the children clap and cheer.
This scene is repeated throughout the period as the students take turns playing games with the 2-foot-tall robot. Wrong answers, and there are few, are met with a simple "try again" from Peter.
Keeping youngsters this age on task can be difficult under any conditions, but what is most amazing is that the six children in this classroom are autistic. They are part of a pilot program at Shaler Academy, a Ridgefield pre-K/kindergarten public school that has a regional magnet program for students with autism and other special needs.
Humanoid robots like Peter are stepping into New Jersey classrooms as electronic teacher aides, helping students with everything from responding to social cues and language to improving fine motor skills.
The robots can dance, pose questions and "understand" verbal and nonverbal answers. And, oh, yes, once they master facial recognition, they can greet you by name, keep a record of your progress and even ask for a kiss.
"The fact that this group (of students) could sit, wait their turn and applaud for each other is tremendous," says Patricia Drimones, supervisor of special education in Ridgefield. "The robot has been a success beyond our expectations. For some, their engagement with the robot has helped us develop language that can otherwise be hard to tap."
People with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) often have problems relating socially, understanding and using language, and learning. A 2014 study by the national Centers for Disease Control estimated that 1 in 68 children in the United States have ASD; in New Jersey, that rises to 1 in 45. According to the CDC, diagnosis is possible as young as age 2 and early intervention is likely to be more effective and less costly.
The robot that the Shaler Academy is using is still in the initial stages of development. Called a NAO robot, it has been used in classrooms since about 2011. The first packaged software designed for autism, Autism Solution for Kids (ASK NAO), was released in 2013. The initial price of nearly $20,000 for a single robot in 2008 has dropped significantly — to $9,000. Aldebaran Robotics, the creator and manufacturer, says that more than 7,000 NAO robots have been sold and it estimates that more than 50 are in use in science, engineering and mathematics (STEM) research and special education programs in New Jersey.
Experts say that many autistic students feel overwhelmed by the ever-changing complexities of facial expressions, body language, day-to-day changes in hair styles and clothing, and other extraneous factors that most people either tune out or unconsciously process. The simplicity of interacting with technology makes it easier for these students to focus and process information.
A spokesperson for Aldebaran attributes children's attraction to NAO robots to the unit's human-like natural body motion as it encourages learning and mimicking, which helps translate social information about connecting to others. At the same time, NAO's clean design reduces sensory information, which helps avoid overstimulation and makes social tasks easier, especially for children with autism.
As with other technology, it is predictable. Plus, the robot is tireless and can repeat a lesson until the child understands.
Students who are hesitant to engage with people often eagerly work with the robot, says Mary Ellen Paradiso, the school's speech and language specialist. "Unlike people, the robot shows no facial expressions. It has a steady voice, and is consistent and nonjudgmental. For some students, it takes the pressure off trying to relate to a real person," she says.
And breakthroughs made with the robot usually carry over into human interactions. "Many students have become more verbal in class," Paradiso says. For example, kids learn that words have consequences. "Sometimes a student will say 'no' when the robot asks, 'Do you want to play again?' and then be disappointed when the robot doesn't continue the game. It is a lesson in language and appropriate response."
There is a lot of social learning going on, too, says Nicola Schneider, district behaviorist. "Kids are learning self-control and turn-taking, as well as how to relate to each other and follow directions."
Paradiso is excited to experiment with the robot's functions. "I can type and the robot speaks my words. So the robot may say, 'Can you jump for me?' and the kids will jump. Only one student figured out that I am actually typing the words, but like the others, he responds."
"Robots can't plan a lesson, see when a student is upset or help set up the conditions so a student can succeed," says Paradiso, but she can program a response for the robot's behavior.
Ridgefield purchased two robots, allowing one to be programmed or have its battery recharged while the other is working with students. This school year, one of the robots will be assigned to a high school programming class.
"We have a lot of ideas we want to implement but don't have the time or expertise to do the programming, and it will be a great learning experience for the high school students," says Paradiso. "The special needs teacher at the high school is also interested in using it (to teach) life skills with more severely disabled older kids."
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A partnership between the Warren County Special Services School District, which serves special needs students throughout the county, and Warren Hills Regional High School, whose students have been programming the robot, has been in place for more than a year. The school's NAO robot is helping teach life skills to 14- to 21-year-olds with multiple disabilities. The robot also works with students on their fine and gross motor skills, motivating them to pick up and hold a card directly in front of its eyes and to join in exercises and dances.
"You don't see a lot of the typical resistant or defiant behaviors when the kids are interacting with the robot," says Shannon McDowell, special education teacher in the Warren Hills Regional School District. "It's great for teaching kids to identify numbers, letters, emotions. ... Plus, it gives kids used to only working with an aide a sense of independence."
The robot was purchased by the Warren County Special Services School District, with the help of a grant from the Kiwanis International Foundation and a casino night fundraiser organized by the Washington Woman's Club and the Washington chapter of the Kiwanis Club.
Tyler Henning and Nick Gagliano, Warren Hills high school students who did the initial programming and in-classroom rollout of the robot, also made presentations to other New Jersey Kiwanis Clubs and school boards in Parsippany, Chatham and other towns.
Chatham piloted the use of NAO robots at Chatham Middle School during the 2014-15 school year. Seven more robots were purchased for a new high school computer science course — animation and movement — being offered this year, says Danielle L. Romero, the district's supervisor of instructional and design technology for grades K through 12.
"We hope that, in the future, we can begin to utilize the NAO robots in our special education classrooms, utilizing the ASK NAO package, as well as have our middle school and high school students create programs based on teacher and student need."
In Edison public schools, four NAO robots are building relationships between high school students in advanced engineering classes and special needs students. The high school students began working with the robots during the 2014-15 school year and the district is now creating logistics and curriculum for a pilot program, says Christopher Conklin, assistant superintendent for pupil special services.
"The idea is to link gifted students with those who are challenged academically and socially," he says. "The robot is a platform, like the iPad, and we want our talented high school kids to spend time in the (special ed/autism) classrooms and think, 'How can we use the robot in this situation?' "
"There's no single magic answer for autism," Conklin adds. "It's a lot of dedicated professionals working with the kids. That's the magic. But, just maybe, another magician may come out of this program; maybe one of these students who gets inspired by their work with autistic students will invent some new way to help these kids communicate."
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