UofL researchers are using robots and virtual reality to help children with autism practice learning in real classrooms.

In a study, J.B. Speed School of Engineering researchers Mohammad Nasser Saadatzi and Karla Conn Welch paired a human student with a humanoid robot — a little orange and-white artificially intelligent robot named NAO — in a mock classroom. The two took turns reading words presented on a computer screen by a virtual, simulated teacher.

The robot seemed to help the students adapt to group learning, which the researchers said can be difficult yet beneficial for kids with autism. As a result, the students learned more words — 100% of the ones taught to them by the virtual teacher and 94% of the ones taught to just their robot classmate.

“And that was significant as a part of the research,” said Welch, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering. “The children did seem to interact and engage and pay attention to the robot, as well as the computer teacher.”

Saadatzi said actively participating in class can sometimes seem over – whelming, especially for children with autism, plus there can be a fear of embarrassment or judgment. But NAO was friendly — kids would interact with him almost like a real classmate celebrating correct answers and saying “hello” and “goodbye” before and after class.

“The robot played the role of a peer for the student,” said Saadatzi, an engineering postdoctoral associate. “The student got to learn new academic skills but also had the opportunity to practice some of the social skills required for multi-student contexts without the negative feedback and teasing of their peers.”

That gave the students a chance to practice their social skills such as building friendships, paying attention when someone’s speaking, taking turns, tolerating intermittent attention by the teacher, and so on. Roland Bibb said those interactions have been a big help to his son, Jaryn, a seventh-grader who participated in the study.

“I noticed improvement toward the end, and it’s all pretty much carried over through school,” Bibb said. “I definitely think it opened him up more to communicate.”

Welch said part of the goal of this work is to show the value technology — like artificial intelligence, virtual reality and robotics — can have in helping young students with and without disability learn and succeed.

“We would like to see these more in school settings and more in home settings,” Welch said. “The cost is certainly a factor right now, but that’s what we want to show with the re – search – that this has … an educational piece or an interaction piece so that people can see how useful these are.”

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