One morning at the Jackie Joyner-Kersee Center in East St. Louis, an unusual guest arrived to greet more than a dozen preschoolers, who gathered on a ketchup-colored mat, surrounded by cubby shelves, Clifford books and crayon drawings.
The visitor, a white robot with blue patches of armor on its head and joints, stood about 2 feet tall. It had arms and legs, like a person, but its plastic face had no expression.
Some children stared at the robot with some trepidation.
“Don’t be afraid,” said Madison Schoen, a Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville graduate student who sat next to the robot. “He’s very, very nice.”
Schoen, who studies child psychology at SIUE, is one of several student instructors working with robots to teach young children about emotions and social skills. She works for the university’s Head Start program to improve outcomes for kids ages 5 and younger in St. Clair County.
As Schoen introduced the robot as “Mo,” the robot stood from its kneeled position, and waved a hand to greet the children.
“Hey, Mo,” Schoen said. “These kid are also learning about feelings.”
“What are feelings?” Mo asked.
“Feelings are one way where you react to the things that happen,” she replied. “A lot of things make us feel happy and then some things make us feel sad and angry.”
“So far, I have never felt feelings,” Mo said.
“That’s okay, Mo, we can teach you,” Schoen said. “Can we teach him, guys?”
“Yeah!” the class responded.
Robots can reach kids in a way adults may not
Scientists have learned a great deal in recent years about the potential robots have to help children develop social skills from an early age. Some studies, for example, have introduced toy-like robots, such as Mo, to kids with autism, who typically focus better on objects than on people.
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Research supports the observation that children find robots more approachable than adults, said SIUE dean of research and computer scientist Jerry Weinberg.
“There [have] been studies that show that kids this age can relate to a robot better,” said Weinberg, who is collaborating with the Head Start program. “Even though it doesn’t look exactly like us, they still ascribe feelings and that sort of intent as they would to another child.”
In other words, kids regard the robot as their peer. Teaching the robot about basic human emotions also reinforces what they’re learning.
“I feel like the best way to learn something is to teach it to something else,” said Stephen Hupp, a SIUE
psychology professor and mental health consultant with the Head Start Program.
Hupp has been working with Weinberg on using robots in early child development for two years, but this is the first time that they’re using robots in this way to interact with preschool kids.
In the 30-minute lesson, Schoen led a discussion on four different emotions: happiness, sadness, anger and fear.
“I see a lot of turned down mouths and closed arms,” Schoen said. “Mo, how might you look if you feel sad?”
“Sad,” Mo repeated, then he bowed his head and folded his arms, causing both the children and the adults in the room to respond with a collective “aww.”
Such responses to the robot’s movements are what the computer scientists at SIUE are most interested in. As Schoen and Hupp coordinated the lesson at the front of the room, Weinberg’s graduate student, Ehren Wolfe, worked backstage to program the robot’s body postures. She thought the human response to Mo’s sad body language was promising, especially considering the fact that the robot can’t make facial expressions, which she said is “the biggest limitation with this platform.”
“There are studies that say there is a lot of information packed into body language alone, so that is representative of emotion,” Wolfe said. “We are relying on that truth that the body can project those emotions.”
Classrooms aren't quite ready for robots
Eventually, Wolfe wants to program Mo to be autonomous. Instead of following a script, Mo would detect how the children are responding through cameras in its eyes and a built-in microphone to pick up voices. But at the moment, Wolfe and her colleagues are still studying how children behave around the robot before moving on to more complex programming.
Over the long term, Weinberg sees robots helping children with a broader range of mental health issues, such as social anxiety.
“Particularly while they’re still small, [it will] bring them out of their social shells, so to speak,” he said.
While it may strike some as strange that an emotionless device could improve someone’s social skills, the researchers in this project find the variety of emotions evoked by Mo the robot encouraging. Hupp was genuinely surprised by what he’s seen, but said the research is still too early on to recommend that every school should come equipped with robots.
“This is experimental for us,” Hupp said. “We’re excited about it. A lot needs to be done before anybody would say every classroom should have a robot. But the day may come.”
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