Indiana lawmakers visited Rockcreek Elementary School on Friday to meet with an unusual teacher – one that happens to be a little different.
Sen. Greg Walker, R-Columbus, Rep. Ryan Lauer, R-Columbus and House Education Chairman 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 these five robots through a grant from the Indiana Department of Education. Rick Oslovar with RoboKind estimates that about 25 districts across the state use the program, with about 3,000 to 4,000 students.
Milo “is a humanoid robot designed to teach students with autism social skills for life, according to RoboKind.
“From the beginning, we designed our robots to support and meet the special needs of teachers as they guide their autistic students toward social skills,” according to the company. “Among their many gestures, each robot replicates most human facial expressions and speaks 20% slower than most people. The embedded chest screen displays real vocabulary and icons, an important evidence-based function.”
BCSC has been rotating the five bots between different elementary schools for about three months, Wolf said.
“They didn’t escape, did they?” laughed Lauer.
Far from starting any robot revolution, Wolf says Milo has helped students make significant progress. For example, councilors were introduced to Ben Wyrick, a fifth grader who was learning about greeting people from Milo.
Ben began by greeting each adult, learning their names, and shaking hands. Then he had a lesson with Milo, who discussed how to greet different people and the words that one can use, depending on the situation.
“We can greet her by looking at someone’s face, smile and say hello,” said the robot.
Ben also used the tablet to watch a video about greetings and answered a question about what he learned.
He said Milo was “great” and helped him learn the tools of sedation.
Wolf said Ben’s time with Milo led to “enormous growth” academically and socially.
The advantage of robots, says Oslovar, is that they provide consistency.
“They don’t judge,” he said. “A teacher sometimes has a bad day. If Milo gets bitten, he doesn’t care. He will still be consistent, teaching and doing everything. “
He added that some of the children also love the robots so that their parents will hear everything about their new friend Milo, without knowing at first that the new friend is an engineer.
Of course, Milo is not meant to be just a friend for students.
“That’s the goal, in general, to try to get them to participate in all the other activities that other kids are doing,” said Jon Gubera with RoboKind. “…The whole goal is to be able to integrate them into society, just like everyone else. It’s just that the way to get them there is a little different.”
Oslovar remembers an example where a child remained speechless for eight years. After working with a robot, he was able to spend 20% of his time in general education classes, answer a question from a reporter and plan a birthday party.
“The student we’re looking at, he’s in fifth grade,” Rockcreek Principal Jennifer Detmer said of Ben. “So he added one more year and entered high school. We are a small school now, but he will go to a big building, so he will have the experience of communicating and talking to you and bringing instead of just one-way communication.”
Walker commented that it’s almost as if it’s “unacceptable” to use robots for this purpose, since some people seem to turn to technology to avoid real-life interactions.
Gubera responded that many children on the spectrum, including some people with autism who are trained at RoboKind, have “amazing analytical skills” and show a positive response to digital interactions.
“It’s more concrete,” he said. “It is not a pity. Their biggest challenge is anger, and they don’t have the skills to control their emotions. The robot is not intelligent, right? It disarms me. They are numbers. Those are zero, coding, right? So that’s the catch – for them it makes sense, because it can be like them. And this is progress for them.
He added that they are not meant to “sit on the robot forever.” Milo is the only tool to “bridge the gap” and help with social skills so that students can transfer these to human interaction.
Lawmakers expressed interest in Milo, with Behning saying that although he had only seen the bot before, he was “very encouraged” to see the impact it had on a real student.
“Anything that helps Ben have a better way of interacting with his peers, I think, is important, that he’s in a normal state,” Walker said. “I’m interested in how the other kids will respond or reflect what they’ve seen in Ben since he’s been able to use this tool.”
Lauer said he was encouraged to use “new technologies” to help with education.
“We should explore all of these options,” Lauer said.