EDINBURG — Sporting a doe-eyed, doll-like face with spiky hair and a cartoonish armor-enforced body, Milo the robot will soon be Edinburg school district’s latest addition to classrooms.
“I teach social skills to children with autism,” said Milo as he introduced himself during a presentation. “During the lessons, as I talk, symbols play on my chest which helps many children and people with autism who experience auditory overload to connect with the lesson.”
Milo, by RoboKind, a Dallas-based company, comes with curriculum that starts by addressing calming techniques and over time targets behavior, emotional understanding, and vocabulary and interaction skills.
The robot is intended to help children on the autism spectrum better associate facial expressions and some movements with social behaviors and emotional queues. Milo’s face can display expressions such as surprise, happiness and even annoyance, while its body can also walk, move its arms and even do what it calls a monkey dance.
Using an iPad or tablet, the teacher can select lessons to be delivered through Milo and while one-on-one sessions are recommended. These can first be introduced in a group setting, if needed, considering repetition is a huge factor when using the robot.
“Milo models for the student the behavior and the student has time to practice,” said Gwynn Gunter, regional sales manager for RoboKind. “The big piece is generalizing that behavior, so what they learn in the classroom they then take it with them back home or with their friends out in the public.”
Its language is delivered at what product experts say is 20 percent slower than regular speech, and a screen on the chest of the robot queue the student to make eye contact and listen with images that appear periodically. And while this robot is not bilingual yet, Gunter said the slower speech could also help English language learners with their vocabulary.
Edinburg school district is the first in the Rio Grande Valley to acquire the robots and the largest implementation of it so far, Gunter said, and they are working to advertise the benefits of the technology in other districts in the area. Milo went into the market three years ago and is now in 26 school districts across the state, she said.
For the pilot program, Edinburg school district will first introduce the robot at six elementary schools —Crawford, Eisenhower, Flores-Zapata, Jefferson, LBJ and Ramirez.
Each of these elementary campuses will get one robot to test in one classroom, which Edinburg school district Superintendent René Gutiérrez estimates will impact more than 40 students.
The school district paid about $10,000 per robot for the pilot, which includes the curriculum and training. Teachers are scheduled to receive training this month on how to best deliver lessons using Milo and begin using the robot in May for the end of the school year and maybe even a summer program, Gutierrez said.
District officials will then evaluate the feedback from teachers, students, parents, as well as the student’s achievements to move forward with an expansion, which Gutiérrez said they are already anticipating.
But even if this technology becomes available in more classrooms, one thing that both Gunter and Gutiérrez pointed out was that this is not intended to replace teachers but to assist them with students that might not react to regular lessons.
“This is something that we have not seen before,” Gutiérrez said. “We felt that this was the next step for us to do and help our autistic students develop those skills that they need and to assist a teacher. This is a supplemental device in our teaching. It doesn’t replace the teacher, but it does benefit in the classroom.”