Education and technology are both incredibly powerful and profoundly impactful in and around our world today as they are both ever-changing, adapting to allow us to continually learn and grow. While many in our society view technology as an abused commodity, some thrive both in and on technology as a means of learning, connectivity, socializing and flourishing, and when technology is utilized to its fullest potential in conjunction with education, it can help students move mountains and truly change the lives of students and their families. Sure, years ago we all joked about robots “taking over” in the future and we all wondered both if and when robots would really be a thing, but it’s safe to say that we didn’t necessarily know just how incredibly helpful they could and can be when used in an educational setting for students with learning disabilities, specifically autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Ask any educator around and they’ll tell you that their students’ success is the most important part of their job, and when they’ve got assistive and innovative technology that can and will aid in that success, their job is that much more fulfilling. Dallas-based company RoboKind has created exactly that in their robot named Milo and their Social Emotional Learning (SEL) curriculum that improves student outcomes. Simply put, the team at RoboKind has created the industry’s most sophisticated, educational robot.
Award-winning engineer, member of the Forbs Technology Council and founder of RoboKind, Richard Margolin works directly with the company’s extended leadership team to ensure they are improving outcomes for as many students and individuals with autism spectrum disorder as possible. “From day one, we have made it our priority to leverage assistive technology in such a way that is engaging for the students, easy for the educators and facilitators and – above all – evidence-based,” Mr. Margolin explains. He continues, “Before RoboKind, I worked at a handful of robotics firms and research centers designing hardware that improved a robot’s potential for collaboration with people.
During my tenure at Hanson Robotics as the director of hardware, more and more research was coming out about the potential of assistive technology in the context of social-emotional learning. Making the leap to see the potential in helping educators improve student outcomes and attainment of Individualized Education Plan (IEP) goals via facially-expressive social robots was pretty obvious.” Mr. Margolin’s desire to create RoboKind came from seeing first-hand how utilizing robotic technology could make impactful differences for children with ASD, especially during the earliest periods of childhood. He and his team knew that, from the beginning, the heart of RoboKind (and Milo, for that matter) would need the most advanced, research and evidence-based social-emotional content and curriculum available. Without it, the robot would just be a toy. “Before building a single piece of technology, we consulted and worked with leaders in cognitive research and studies, practitioners, educators and parents. The result: robots4autism®,” Margolin adds.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, ASD is a developmental disability that can cause significant social, communication and behavioral challenges. There is often nothing about how people with ASD look that sets them apart from other people, but people with ASD may communicate, interact, behave and learn in ways that are different from most other people. The learning, thinking and problem-solving abilities of people with ASD can range from gifted to severely challenged. Some people with ASD need a lot of help in their daily lives; others need less.
Though RoboKind set out to help students with ASD, the programs they’ve created are as much for the teacher/educator as they are for the student(s). When asked who RoboKind helps, Mr. Margolin explains, “One answer is individuals with ASD. For us, that means children in pre-kindergarten (PK) and seniors in their 80s. However, our focus is on students PK-12. The other answer is educators. Without the amazing work of special education teachers and the commitment they show regularly, we would not exist as a company. Our social robots are assistive – they do not replace the educator, practitioner, paraprofessional, therapist, etc. We have designed the program and curriculum to be a tool for facilitators (one of many in their toolbox). We know our tool is effective and improves outcomes more quickly and is built for ease of use.”
RoboKind has three robots, Milo, Jett, and Robon, with several more in development. Milo is RoboKind’s leader in the company’s work to support social and emotional learning for people with autism spectrum differences. Milo works with educators and therapists to improve outcomes, and he excels in individual and small group environments that help learners show observable increases in engagement, including eye contact, body language and social interactions. Jett is the leader of RoboKind’s science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) initiatives and the world’s first dark skin humanoid robot. Jett works with educators and developers around the world to integrate computer science learning standards that prepare the next generation of scientists. Robon is RoboKind’s first robot teaching assistant and helps teachers learn to code with a purpose. Robon leads RoboKind’s efforts in empowering teachers and learners to code across the curriculum, and she is the first facially expressive, female humanoid robot in the world. RoboKind’s robots have twenty-one servomotors (servos) that control the position and speed of their many movements, joints and facial expressions. Each servo is powered by a proportional–integral–derivative controller (PID controller). Machine learning algorithms, informed by a wide array of sensors (touch, audio and visual), drive real-time in-session analytics and optimizations. RoboKind’s collaborative robots are made to share space and safely engage with humans in close proximity.
Robots4autism is RoboKind’s evidence-based curriculum that serves ASD students, and throughout the curriculum, Milo interacts with students to deliver those evidence-based practices. Milo works with educators, a corresponding app and the student to help those students with ASD navigate, gain exposure to and work through modules that cover Social Narratives, Verbal and Visual Prompting, Visual Supports, Video and Natural Modeling, Core Vocabulary and Social Skills Training. “Milo is a facially expressive, socially interactive robot and we use him to teach social and emotional skills to children with autism. He’s facially expressive when he speaks, he speaks slowly so the kids can hear and absorb more of what he is saying. He has a small screen on his chest that we used to show flashcards, and it doesn’t matter if you’re teaching this or anything else, kids need lots of repetition. He’s patient, he’s able to repeat lessons over and over again perfectly and our apps allow Milo to take control of tablets or computers so that he can show videos of people interacting with each other socially and really reinforces what they are learning,” Mr. Margolin says.
RoboKind’s Senior Director of Professional Learning and Content Mary Shaw is a former special education teacher that grew into district leadership before making the jump to education technology and has seen first-hand what RoboKind can do in the classroom. Ms. Shaw explains, “Social Emotional Learning (SEL) is the core of our program. While autism therapy is a key starting place for our robots4autism program, most students PK-5 could benefit from our curriculum. Besides finding the robot engaging, the curriculum teaches students calm down techniques; how to properly greet and leave conversations; understand the nuances of emotions and non-verbal communication and common situations like playdates and birthday parties.”
Dr. Pamela R. Rollins, MS, EdD, CCC/SLP reports that The National Professional Development Center on autism spectrum disorder has identified 25 evidence-based practices of social and communication skills in school-age children with ASD. “Evidence-based practices found in the robots4autism social skills curriculum include technology-aided intervention, visual supports, social narratives, video modeling, natural modeling, prompting reinforcement of target behaviors and social skills training. Robots4autism is a developmental-behavioral approach, which means it’s based on developmental theory and the principles of applied behavioral analysis. It has a high fidelity of treatment, which means Milo can give the same treatment the same way over and over and over. The program focuses on functional social skills such as reciprocal interaction, turn-taking, conversation and initiating interactions, identifying social cues, appropriate social responses and identifying and imitating facial expressions and emotions. Milo is a motivator. Milo is an intrinsic reinforcer that keeps children with autism engaged. My research shows that when Milo is in the room, children with autism are more engaged with Milo than with an adult or anything else.”
The robots4autism curriculum is comprised of modules that allow the student to learn and grow through interactive lessons with Milo. The introductory module’s purpose lies in building rapport with the student and Milo, and also allows the educator to determine whether or not the child has the prerequisite skills for working with the robot, which can include things like answering yes or no questions, symbol recognition and cause and effect. The curriculum also offers a calm down module given that children learn best when they’re well-regulated. The calm down module teaches children different self-regulation skills like counting to 10 or taking a break and can also be executed at any time during any module. So, if the student gets dysregulated, Milo’s right there to help them calm down. The emotional understanding modules help children identify and imitate different facial expressions. Milo first describes the emotion, then he models the emotion for the child. The student then identifies the emotion first with Milo, then a picture of an actor and then with the video, so each time it gets progressively harder. Children with autism have persistent problems with back-and-forth conversation, so the conversational module was created to help the child respond to others in addition to adding information and to have a back-and-forth conversation with other people. The curriculum also offers situation modules like playdates, problems with playdates, or even opening up presents. Students with ASD often need to be pre-organized before going into situations that they are unfamiliar with. The situational modules were created for that purpose as many situations are often less familiar to a child with autism, and the module allows them to better understand what to expect and what skills they need. “Milo was developed by a team of talented engineers, software developers and artists, and his autism curriculum was developed by clinicians and researchers with decades of experience. The curriculum focuses on things like greetings and saying goodbye, how to keep yourself calm and how to recognize a smile on someone else’s face and what it means,” Mr. Margolin says. Mr. Margolin adds that in traditional therapy, people with autism can engage the therapist about two and a half percent of the time, which is effectively nothing. “With Milo, they’re able to engage Milo 87.5% percent of a session, which is why they’re able to learn for the first time in many cases. Students with autism react extraordinarily positively when they first engage with Milo. They’re excited to see a cool robot and then when they see him move and they see his face move they’re really engaged,” he shares.
As technology and society have progressed, the team at RoboKind has worked to ensure that students can continually learn and grow with Milo and the SEL curriculum. The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic forced school districts across the country to utilize remote/virtual learning, which didn’t stop kiddos from having access to Milo through RoboKind’s robots4autism: Avatar. “Before the March 2020 closures, remote learning was not something that the country was ready for. In fact, it created a huge gap for millions of students (especially special education students) that rely on in-school services. Our team, I am very proud to say, rose to the challenge and released our avatar software – a technology that enables facilitators to deploy our programming in remote and blended learning environments,” Mr. Margolin says. The company’s new avatar software allows educators to deliver their evidence-based, research-driven, social-emotional curriculum and content to students, regardless of location. The avatar program consists of 13 modules and 110+ lessons designed to help PK-12 students understand emotions and master social and behavioral practices. Admittedly, the remote and blended learning platforms have brought unprecedented difficulties to special education students, parents and educators tasked with meeting needs through different means. The avatar program allows educators to meet those children’s needs while still meeting their IEP goals.
The team at RoboKind hasn’t stopped in their pursuit to impact student’s lives, and they have worked hard to expand their reach both educationally and technologically through their robots4STEM® program. RoboKind’s robots4STEM is a new computer science and coding curriculum for elementary school students. Students learn to code using a standards-aligned curriculum where they can visualize their work in a 3D simulation, then in a real, facially expressive robot. Students apply their knowledge in a visual block coding environment where they can practice coding on their own avatar, and then that avatar from the virtual world to the real world. Essentially, Jett, the robot in their classroom, can do what they program their avatar to do. Core missions and components of the coding curriculum include digital citizenship, algorithms and sequencing, designing computer programs, variables, conditionals and key-press events.
Of what RoboKind essentially offers to school districts, government agencies, public, private and charter schools, health organizations and researchers, Ms. Shaw says, “We offer two core programs: robots4autism and robots4STEM. Each program includes a facially expressive robot, evidence-based curriculum, a yearly software subscription to access reporting, student progress and data and professional development. We have three robots today, with several more in development! As a company, we are focused on inclusivity and equity in education. We designed our programs to be eligible for Title 1 funding, grants and similar federal/local programs. Additionally, our technology is built to represent the students they serve and the programs are available for schools to purchase. While we are working on a family offering, we require a school to be involved in the facilitation of the programming. Our team can help parents and parent-teacher organizations prepare materials that will help them purchase a program through school leadership and channels.” While RoboKind’s programs are not readily available outside of the educational system, Ms. Shaw says their team is working on a solution. “Schools are required to be a part of the implementation to better serve students equitably. There are several federal and local funding options available to schools that are not available to parents and allows us to impact more students across larger population segments,” she explains. The program(s) are designed for all educators’ ease of use and to help educators improve the impact they make with our programs. “By design, the program is easy to implement. Teachers and educators have enough on their plate already, and no one likes a tool that adds more work than results. We are proud that implementations can start as soon as one week after purchase,” Ms. Shaw concludes.
Technology has made so many things possible as it has so rapidly developed over the years. Technology paired with masterminds that have a goal of empowering and improving the lives of others through education has shown that the sky truly is the limit for those with ASD. As our world evolves, so do learning environments, student’s abilities, student’s and teacher’s needs and the demand for innovative and forward-thinking education. The team at RoboKind has managed to create products that readily address and adapt to each of the aforementioned aspects of education and student needs, and they’re changing lives while they do it.