Indiana lawmakers visited Rockcreek Elementary on Friday to meet with an unusual teacher — one who happens to be a little different.
Mori. Greg Walker, R-Columbus, Rep. Ryan Lauer, R-Columbus, and House Education President Bob Behning, R-Indianapolis, visited the school to see a demonstration of Milo, a robot designed to help students with autism.
Autism coordinator Amber Wolf said Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp. was able to purchase five of the robots through funding from the Indiana Department of Education. RoboKind’s Rick Oslovar estimates that about 25 districts across the state are using the program, with about 3,000 to 4,000 students participating.
According to RoboKind, Milo is a “humanoid robot with facial expressions designed to teach life social skills to students on the autism spectrum.
“From the beginning, we designed our robots to support and meet the needs of special educators as they guide students with autism in social-emotional mastery,” the company said. “Among the many actions they make, each The robots all replicate most human facial expressions and speak 20% slower than most humans. The embedded chest screen displays core vocabulary and icons, which is an important evidence-based practice.”
BCSC has been rotating its five robots among its different elementary schools for about three months, Wolf said.
“Did they escape or something?” Lauer joked.
Wolf says Milo has not sparked any kind of robot uprising, but has helped students make significant progress. For example, the legislator is introduced to fifth grader Ben Wyrick, who has been learning how to say hello from Milo.
I start by greeting each adult, remembering their name, and shaking their hand. Then he sat down for a class with Milo, who talked about how to greet different people and which phrases to use depending on the situation.
“We can say hello by looking at someone’s face, smiling and saying hello,” the robot instructed.
Ben also uses the tablet to watch videos on greetings and answer questions about what he has learned.
He said Milo had been “great” and had helped him learn tools to calm himself.
Ben’s time with Milo resulted in “tremendous growth,” both academically and socially, Wolfe said.
The benefit of bots is that they provide consistency, Oslovar said.
“They have no judgment,” he said. “The teacher has a bad day sometimes. If Milo gets bitten, he doesn’t care. He’ll still be consistent, teach, do whatever.”
He added that some kids even love robots so much that their parents will hear about their new friend Milo, not realizing at first that the new friend is a mechanical sidekick.
Of course, Milo isn’t the students’ only friend.
“That’s our goal and generalization, trying to get them involved in all the other activities that other kids do,” says RoboKind’s Jon Gubera. “…the whole goal is to get them in Society, just like everyone else. It’s just a little bit different in how they get there.”
Oslovar recalls an instance where a child hadn’t spoken for eight years. Using the robot, he can spend 20 percent of his time in general education classes, answering newscasters’ questions and preparing birthday parties.
“We’re looking at this student, he’s in fifth grade,” Rockcreek Principal Jennifer Detmer said of Ben. A bigger building, so he’s going to have the skills to communicate and talk back and forth, not just one way.”
Walker commented that using a robot for this purpose seems “counterintuitive” as it seems some people are turning to technology to avoid real-life interactions.
Gubera responded that many children with autism, including some who intern at RoboKind, have “amazing analytical skills” and show better responses to digital interactions.
“It’s more specific,” he said. “It’s not emotional. Their biggest challenge is losing control of their emotions, and they don’t have the skills to manage them. Robots don’t have emotions, right? It’s disarming. It’s numbers. It’s ones and zeros, coded, right? So That’s the problem — it makes more sense to them because it’s probably more like them. And then that’s their breakthrough.”
They’re not meant to “stay on the robot forever,” he added. Milo is simply a tool to “bridge the gap” and help develop social-emotional skills so students can transfer those skills to interpersonal interactions.
Lawmakers have expressed interest in Milo, and Behning said that while he’s seen the robot before, he’s “very encouraged” by seeing the impact it’s having on actual students.
“I think anything that helps Ben interact better with his peers is important because he’s in a mainstream environment,” Walker said. “I’m curious how other kids will respond since he’s been able to use this tool.” Or point out what they saw in Ben.”
Lauer said he was encouraged by the use of “innovative technology” to help education.
“We should explore all of these types of options,” Lauer said.