It’s said that good things come in small packages.
That’s the case at Borland Manor Elementary School, where a two-foot-tall robot named Robon has quickly become a favorite – and effective – educational tool in the autistic/life skills class.
Some children with autism struggle with social cues – reading facial expressions, making eye contact and interpreting vocal tones.
Robon teaches young students with Autism Spectrum Disorder to use social skills, and how to more comfortably communicate and interact with other people.
Canon-McMillan is the first school district in Pennsylvania to obtain Robon to help teach students with autism.
The school district uses a male version of Robon, named Milo, at South Central Elementary School.
Robon, who has unruly red hair and wears an outfit resembling a spacesuit, can model facial expressions. She can smile, frown, raise her eyebrows, dart her eyes from side to side, walk, dance, mimic swinging a baseball bat and carry on simple conversations. She can even throw a temper tantrum and sneeze.
Robon helps children understand what a smile or frown means, how to calm down and handle themselves when upset, and how to respond to people.
For example, Robon can say something like, ‘Sometimes you can figure out how somebody is feeling by looking at their mouth. Most people smile when they feel happy.”
The robot’s cheeks move up and the corner of her lips turn up, making a smile. She then asks the children to copy her smile.
A touchscreen on Robon’s chest allows students to control and see their own faces as they watch her.
Life skills teacher Natalie Jaskowski and the students also use an iPad as part of their interaction with Robon.
“It’s that engagement that’s so effective. These kids are so into technology,” said Becky Lieb, director of special education at Canon-Mac. “It’s just a different generation, so we have to adjust to what works for them. Kids went home and told their parents about Robon. They’ve been very responsive to it.”
Lieb said one of the reasons Robon is so effective is her ability to repeatedly and consistently teach the same skills.
Borland Manor received the $5,000 robot, manufactured by Dallas-based company Robokind, through a Horizon Foundation grant, an anonymous donation and a donation from Jeffrey’s Drug Store owner Gerald O’Hare.
“I’m very excited; I’m ecstatic,” said Lieb. “I can’t wait to see the improvement in students, before and after. I’m more excited for the months down the road to see the progress they’ve made.”
She cited an example of the impact Milo has made on students at South Central. A student whose anger escalates quickly modeled behavior demonstrated by Milo, and he told his teacher he needed a break, instead of lashing out.
Lieb said the robots will switch buildings periodically so students can connect with both.
The district also plans to expand use of the robots to upper grade levels.