hgazette.com, Haverhill, MA

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April 17, 2014

Their best friend's a robot

Children learn with help from human-like machines

The experiment is working.

Two high-tech robots that can dance, talk and even take kids on a walk have been helping to teach students at the Moody Pre-school for about a year. Teachers said they’ve had some interesting results with the little electronic guys, which were specially designed to help teach children with autism.

Children and teachers can talk to the robots and they respond. And the more the robots learn through additional interactive applications, the better they are able to reach children.

Early last year, Haverhill was among a few school districts in the United States chosen by the Paris-based Aldebaran Robotics company as a test site for its newest programmable humanoid robot. The robots are about 22 inches tall and weigh about nine pounds.

When teachers at the Moody first began using the robots last spring, Principal Maureen Gray’s initial impression was that some students who barely reacted to people had a great reaction to the robots. Since then, she’s been even more impressed with what the robots can do to help children grow and develop. Moody’s 200 prekindergarten students include a mix of regular and special education students in integrated classrooms, Gray said.

The robots use two built-in cameras and vocal recognition software to recognize faces and voices, and can even play catch by using their “prehensile” fingers to grasp a ball.

The school’s robots — an orange one that teachers named Chip and a blue one they named Connor — are the city’s to keep.

“A teacher can be typing while Chip is communicating with children,” said Alyssa Proia, an integrated preschool teacher. “Children ask him questions, and he asks them questions.”

Proia said she primarily uses Chip to work one-one-one with children on following simple directions.

“The student I’ve had the most success with was unable to even sit in a chair due to her poor attention span,” Proia said about a child with developmental delays. “Since working with Chip, she’s become more motivated to work with the robot and has been able to sit for 10 minutes with the robot, which carries over into the classroom.

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