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Toy-like robotic dragon to be tested as a teaching aid for children

By Damir Beciri
21 October 2011

dragon-robotDavid DeSteno, an associate professor of psychology at Northeastern University, and researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Harvard University, are examining how social robots can aid preschoolers in language learning. In order to make the learning more fun and interesting for the younger children, the robot prototype used in this project resembles a stuffed animal-like dragon.

“You can watch a video, or play a computer game, but there’s no dynamic social component in those technologies, which research is showing to be really important for learning in children,” said DeSteno, who runs the Social Emotions Group lab at Northeastern.

DeSteno is working on the project in collaboration with Cynthia Breazeal at MIT’s Personal Robots Group lab and Paul Harris, the Victor S. Thomas Professor of Education at Harvard University. DeSteno and Breazeal previously worked on another project where they used a Nexi robot to record how human-to-human pairs interact and analyze all of their behaviors in order to identify the cues that were most important in expressing how human biological motions and social bonding work.

“Certain non-verbal cues like mimicking behavior to improve rapport and social bonding, or changes in gaze direction to guide shared attention, are central”, said DeSteno. “When kids learn from human teachers, these cues enhance the learning. We’re designing our new dragon robots to be able to have these capabilities.”

The researchers plan to test the dragon robots within a preschool context at MIT. They plan to situate a child and the robot at a table in a preschool setting where they could to interact with each other, and observe the exchange of social and emotional cues that show approval and engagement, such as nodding and eye gaze, while an operator controls the robot from a computer.

“Children tend to learn and accept information more readily from individuals that they feel bonded to, so we need to make them feel like the robot is a sentient being”,  said DeSteno. “We hope this technology will help to increase the efficiency by which an instructor can teach kids and reach kids in the classroom and remotely.”

Since the robot is controllable over Internet, the researchers plan to use the dragon robots in tests where they could monitor robot’s effectiveness as a distance-learning tool in children’s homes, which could be especially helpful for children who live in remote areas.

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