MICHIGAN CITY – Mila can dance, play, talk, walk and blink like most children in Michigan schools. But he has one difference: he’s a robot.
Mila helps students with autism and communication problems, as well as preschool students with special needs in the area. A similar robot Carver is also in the classroom.
The City of Michigan Schools was part of the University of Indiana’s research project on the Mila pilot study. Since then, the district has received a grant and three more robots. There are now two versions of Carver and Milo that are distributed in Knapp Elementary Schools, Pine and Joy and Michigan High School.
Robots were originally created to help students with autism, but they can be used for any student who has communication problems.
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Mila and Carver work through the use of lessons. The special education teacher will select a lesson from the tablet and then the robot will talk to the student. On a separate tablet the student can answer and answer.
In the lessons, one could consider how to say yes or no, or how to deal with emotions. There are many options for teachers to choose from.
In Joy Elementary Mila is pused mainly to aid in speech and language. Molly Trout, head of special education at MCAS, and speech assistant Mallory Heflin recently worked with Joy Elementary students to help them participate in group work and one-on-one classes with Milo.
One student had trouble deciphering to say “yes” or “no”. Their lesson focused on Mila doing an action, such as closing her eyes, and the student answering what Mila was doing, a question of yes or no.
In another lesson, students had to find out what emotions Mila was showing. Mila showed the students photos of several different faces, and they had to determine which of them expressed emotions “scared”.
Teachers said the masks complicate social emotional learning, especially for kindergarten and first-graders who attended school only during the pandemic. Mila can help students identify emotions and see how people will react.
Other lessons could fconsider social narratives such as a phone call, go to a birthday party or calm down if you feel frustrated.
Trout said many students contact Milo and see him as a friend. When students came, they were often interested in touching Milo and were fascinated by his lessons. Mila’s hands and face have a rubbery texture and it needs to be very durable.
Mila also speaks shorter chunks of phrases to help students who may have delays in processing or they need more time to understand what he can say.
The goal is for students to eventually interact with Milo in the classroom, but teachers are still creating a level of comfort for individual students. Adding a robot to a class without training can be challenging.
Currently, students work with Mila for approximately 60 to 90 minutes per week. They will often alternate the use of robots with other forms of speech or communication work.