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Florida Mesa Elementary School welcomes Misty the robot

Robotics can help students in special education programs feel more at ease
Mari Stevenson, director of special education for Durango School District 9-R, looks at robot Misty II during a demonstration of the new robot at the Administration Building that will be used during classes. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Durango School District 9-R is using robots to help students in special education programs improve their social skills and learning retention.

Introducing Misty Robot – a $2,000 robot that is nonjudgmental, has facial recognition and can help students feel at ease and speak more freely. The school district has purchased two of the robots, but may purchase more.

The robots will do the majority of their “teaching” at Florida Mesa Elementary School. But they will also visit Big Picture High School, where students will learn how to program the blinking, speaking, Wi-Fi-connected contraptions. And they may be used at the high school level to help students feel more comfortable with job interviews.

“We could see students being the programmers or working on the creation of the software,” said Mari Stevenson, director of special education for 9-R. “We could also see high school students engaging with it to learn job skills or interview skills.”

Stevenson first witnessed robot technology being used as a learning tool at a previous school district job in Longmont.

During her studies using robots, Stevenson said she interacted with students who didn’t speak at all, but during the course of the year, while interacting with the robots, students were able to speak their first full sentences.

The challenge then becomes figuring out how to transfer that process of interacting with a robot to interacting with another person. In measuring success, Stevenson said teachers can set specific goals for students and map their progress.

“Kids are more likely to engage with the robot when they’re stressed than to engage with an adult,” Stevenson said.

A study has shown students feel less judgment from robots, because robots don’t have body language.

The robots can be customized with student profiles. If a student has significant autism and struggles with communication, teachers can use the robots to make students feel more comfortable in conversation.

With facial recognition, students can walk into a classroom and be greeted by name from the robot. It is able to respond to questions or statements with a single sentence, or it can be programmed to have more in-depth conversations.

“They have a number of different motion detectors,” said Kery Harrelson, director of technology for the school district. “So you could actually program it to go from here to there, complete a task and come back.”

Harrelson said the robots are cost-effective at a little more than $2,000 per robot.

“We could really do some prototyping and really do all kinds of experiments and create our own content, and then expand into JavaScript and Python,” Harrelson said of the higher-level learning potential for students.

The robots speak slowly and clearly, which allows some students to grasp English more easily than from humans who are less likely to control their pace of speech.

“We found that because the tone and rate of how the robot speaks, the student was actually able to comprehend more of what a question was, or what was being read,” Stevenson said.

Kery Harrelson, right, IT director for Durango School District 9-R, operates Misty II, a robot, through a computer, as Steve Steiner, left, coordinator of special education for Durango School District 9-R, and Mari Stevenson, director of special education for Durango School District 9-R, look on during a demonstration at the Administration Building of the new robot that will be used during classes. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Programming the robots fits in well with the district’s effort for career innovation, Stevenson said.

She said the school district can monitor if the robots are being used improperly and becoming a distraction in the classroom.

“It’s pre-teaching the students: How do you support Misty? How do you charge Misty? How do you respect Misty? ... It’s all part of the teaching and learning process,” Stevenson said.

Florida Mesa Elementary will have two robots this year, but Stevenson envisions having as many as six in a classroom because of their educational potential.

Harrelson said Misty Robots may be useful beyond the classroom; it is conceivable students could program them to help people in assisted-living communities.

tbrown@durangoherald.com