Robots Help Teach STEM Concepts to Students With Autism

Credit: Alicia Moody, University of North Carolina, Wilmington.

May 03, 2018      

As schools around the world look for ways to better teach science, technology, engineering, and math to students, many teachers are finding that robots can help teach STEM concepts to children with autism because of their physical nature and consistent behavior.

For example, one classroom is using Bee-Bots to move to different math problems on a grid, with children expected to answer problems and code the robot to move to the next location, where a second problem awaits.

In another classroom, Sphero robots help teach motion and friction principles by running through mazes and adding chariots with weights to enhance friction.

A NAO robot

Amelia Moody, an associate professor at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington, said she believes robots are a very useful tool to keep children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) more engaged.

“Children with ASD are having fun, but they are also learning about motion and computation skills,” said Moody.

“We use Cozmos to teach behaviors, emotions, and review calming strategies,” she added. “The children think they are playing but they are actually getting important instruction.”

“Some humanoid robots, like the Nao or Milo, are also specifically designed by researchers to meet the needs of children with ASD,” Moody said. “For example, they have decreased facial features and human traits in an effort to bridge the gap between people and robots. These robots engage learners in communication and social skills.”

Over the past few years, Moody and her Wilmington team have built several robotics kits that it checks out to schools, including:

Each kit comes with lessons teachers can use as models, but once teachers get comfortable they create their own lessons, Moody said.

“We also started a STEM Learning Cooperative, which allows us to collaborate with engineers and scientists who offer knowledge and we think of adaptations we can make to engaged individuals with ASD,” said Moody. “This collaboration is very valuable because we all offer different expertise and can build on one another’s ideas.”

Robots are consistent and predictable

Joby Otero, chief product officer at Ozobot, said he believes robots are “even more beneficial than tablets” for general learning, especially in the STEM space. One reason is that robots provide “physical engagement that can connect students to the rest of the world,” he said, which is “more stimulating than screens.”

Robots Autism STEM photo

Robotism Rocks event at the Watson College of Education on April 7, 2017 hosted by CESTEM and the Assistive Technology Center. Photo by Krystine Adams

“Even when operating in the messy physical world, robots can have highly patterned and predictable behavior, which seems to be soothing to many with ASD,” said Otero. “Robots can interact in ways that are tuned to each user to avoid whatever social anxieties they may have.

“Social expectations like making eye contact can be tricky for children with ASD, but robots have no issue with that,” Otero said. “Even the visual design of the robot’s face can play a part in this. By interacting with each individual in a way that works best for them, robots can make connections and then gently help connect the individual to the rest of the world.”

Ozobots are used in more than 10,000 schools for STEM and other purposes. Otero said the robot system is “easy for all students to learn with and more engaging than traditional techniques, resulting in better learning retention.”

“One reason is that Ozobots, including our latest generation bot Evo, are designed to be fun and friendly, but also a blank slate for self-expression,” he said. “So our bots don’t have anthropomorphic features that can be intimidating to students with ASD.”

More robots likely to enter the classroom

Because robots are becoming more affordable and accessible, Moody said their use in classrooms will likely increase.

“As long as a teacher has content knowledge and the tools, it is up to their imagination,” Moody said. “You can measure angles, learn sight reading words, strengthen coding skills, or just use robots as a fun engagement tool.”

Otero added that artificial intelligence designed to self-tune its interaction with any user, including and “especially those with ASD,” is also developing.

Some teams are focused entirely on building robotics and AI specifically for users with ASD, tuning their designs and building systems in collaboration with behavioral psychologists and others with non-traditional technology backgrounds. Otero said he’s excited to see all these worlds come together to “find new ways of unlocking everyone’s potential.”

For larger robotics systems, those that would cost more to own and maintain, Otero said. Home users could move to a robots as a service (RaaS), or rental, model. Instead of owning such robots outright, parents would pay a subscription fee to have robots in the home. Subscriptions would be possible for therapist and educator’s time, either in-person or remotely, with a robot offering telepresence options, Otero said.

“Another key trend will be small personal robotics designed to be constant companions that can assist in various areas of life,” said Otero. “These bots will help in school, at home, and anywhere in between, facilitating play, learning, creativity, and socializing.”

Otero said many systems will benefit from distributed learning, where machine learning allows anonymous data from one location makes the experience better for all users.

“Like Tesla’s cars, our system and some others are designed to be updated on the fly,” said Otero. “Along with distributed learning, it should accelerate the pace of making robots that work for users with ASD, and everyone else, expanding human potential.

Business takeaways:

  • Robots are a very useful tool to keep children with ASD engaged and can help with teaching a variety of subjects, including motion and computation skills.
  • Some humanoid robots, like the Nao or Milo, are specifically designed to meet the needs of children with autism. Things like decreased facial features and human traits can help to bridge the gap between people with ASD and robots and engage learners in communication and social skills.
  • Key potential future trends in this space could include RaaS and the development of small personal robotics designed to be constant companions that can assist in various areas of life.