La Trobe University researchers are bringing education into the digital age with the introduction of a companion robot into special needs schools.
In a first for Victoria, the University has teamed up with Waratah Special Developmental School to trial a robot called Matilda as a classroom companion.
Matilda has been working across four classrooms to assist teachers in creating positive social engagement and entertaining learning activities for students.
Research Project Manager Seyed Mohammed Sadegh Khaksar, from the La Trobe Research Centre for Computers, Communication and Social Innovation (RECCSI), said the robot is being personalised to empower teachers and enhance their work.
“Matilda can recognise human voices and faces, detect emotions, read and recite text, dance and play music,” Dr Khaksar said.
“Our aim is to adapt these features in a way that will complement a teaching environment and provide tailored support to teachers and students.
“This study is about assisting both teachers and students, especially those in special needs education, who can face particular challenges in their learning environments. It will measure how social robots can motivate children with special needs to better learn and engage in the classroom.”
Dr Khaksar said feedback from teachers – taken before, during and after classes – has been crucial in helping shape and develop a more effective companion robot.
“The teachers taking part in this trial are able to tell us what it is they need from Matilda and which of the existing services need to be adapted or changed to better suit their needs,” Mr Khaksar said.
“For example, one of the services we are co-developing with Waratah Special Developmental School is a bullying support service to be programmed into Matilda.”
In addition to teacher feedback, student interaction has proved overwhelmingly positive.
“The results are immediate. As soon as the kids see Matilda in the classroom, their faces light up and they become more interested and engaged,” Dr Khaksar said.
“Because the robot is patient and non-judgemental – as well as being interactive – the students have been able to form a type of bond with it.
“The robot can speak to students, read and act out characters in books, as well as set tasks. But it can also repeat things hundreds of times if necessary and not tire of it.”
Waratah Special Developmental School Principal, Jennifer Wallace, said school staff have found the ability to work collaboratively with La Trobe researchers beneficial.
“It’s been a fantastic experience to help develop specific activities and adjustments for the robot, to address the individual needs of our students and monitor their progress,” Principal Wallace said.
“We’ve seen an increase in students’ willingness to engage with the robot and an improvement in communication and social skills. Our students are listening and attending to the robot, responding when their name is called and following the robot’s instructions.
“We’ve found our students are highly motivated to participate in activities facilitated through the robot and they are demonstrating an increased ability to wait and take turns after spending time with the robot.”
RECCSI Research Manager and Associate Professor (Debbie) Mei-Tai Chu said this type of technology is in high demand.
“La Trobe is at the forefront in creating solutions for social innovation. Our hope is that La Trobe’s robotic technology, which delivers emotional assistance and companionship over physical services, will be employed widely across Australia,” Dr Chu said.
“Using this personalised approach over a one-size-fits-all model is vital, as it allows users in various contexts to independently develop unique services tailored to their specific needs.
“Matilda is not only enabling the kids from Waratah Special Developmental School to develop better communication, but also social and cognitive skills.”
The study into social robots for special needs classes is set for completion in late 2018.
Matilda was originally co-created in partnership with NEC Corporation.
Author: Eliza Brockwell
Eliza is passionate about creating content that encourages diversity of representation in STEM.