Humanoid robot boosts engagement of children with intellectual disabilities


Using a humanoid robot as an educational tool could significantly improve engagement of children with severe intellectual disabilities, researchers have found.

Experts from Nottingham Trent University and the University of Nottingham found that engagement of pupils who interacted with the autonomous ‘NAO’ robot was up to five times greater than when in a standard classroom setting.

Five pupils aged nine to 17– with disabilities including cerebral palsy, autism, the neurodevelopmental disorder microcephaly and general developmental delays – were set individual learning objectives before being videoed as they interacted with the robot across a number of sessions.

Their objectives included symbol recognition and task sequencing, number recognition, communication improvement, direction learning and understanding cause and effect.

The pupils, all from the Oak Field School and Sports College in Nottingham, had their behaviour studied by the researchers and their teachers. Video analysis software was also used to measure the pupils’ level of engagement, goal achievement and the amount of assistance required by teaching staff.

Engagement – measured using an engagement profile scale created by the SSAT (The Schools Network) Ltd’s Complex Learning Difficulties and Disabilities project – showed that for every pupil engagement when working with the robot was higher than when they were working in class.

Engagement of three out of the five pupils more than doubled on the engagement profile scale, with one pupil’s engagement rising from four to 25, and another’s from six to 25.

Engagement was at consistent levels across all sessions, and for four out of the five pupils teacher assistance gradually diminished.

David Brown, Professor in Interactive Systems for Social Inclusion in Nottingham Trent University’s School of Science and Technology, said: “Human-robot interaction is an emerging field of research and these are really exciting initial results. Educating young people with intellectual disabilities presents different challenges due to their impaired understanding and reduced social skills.

“Engagement is thought to be the single best predictor of successful learning in children with intellectual disabilities and we have demonstrated here how robots can be used to increase engagement.”

The programmable NAO humanoid robot, produced by Aldebaran Robotics in France, is more advanced than robots used in similar studies, with capabilities including speech, speech recognition, sitting, standing, walking, dancing and playing sound files.

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