Companion robot Matilda helps Australian teachers create engaging learning environments for special needs students while improving their cognitive skills

La Trobe University in Australia has teamed up with a local school for students with intellectual disabilities to trial a robot classroom companion.

So far Matilda (who thankfully looks nothing like its chainsaw-wielding Robot Wars namesake) has visited four classrooms in the Australian state of Victoria to help teachers improve social engagement and create new and entertaining learning activities for students.

“Matilda can recognise human voices and faces, detect emotions, read and recite text, dance and play music,” said Dr Khaksar, Research Project Manager at La Trobe Research Centre for Computers, Communication and Social Innovation (RECCSI).

“This study is about assisting both teachers and students, especially those in special needs education, who can face particular challenges in their learning environments. It will measure how social robots can motivate children with special needs to better learn and engage in the classroom,” he added.

Rush to educational robots?

The news comes as firms like LEGO and Mattel join a growing list of manufacturers offering toys to assist the teaching of STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art & Math).

It is a practice that has led to criticism from some quarters, given the lack of evidence that toys or robots provide more educational benefits than traditional teaching methods.

But researchers of learning disabilities say students with intellectual disabilities may actually benefit the most from having human-like robots as classroom companions. Early studies have shown that humanoid robots can act as peers to help autistic children develop important social skills.

Dr Khaksar from La Trobe said the initial results from Matilda’s trial in Australia have echoed the findings of previous studies:

“The results are immediate. As soon as the kids see Matilda in the classroom, their faces light up and they become more interested and engaged,” he said.

Reducing the IT skills gap

Researchers hope that in addition to assisting special needs students with social skills, robots can help the same students learn technical skills like coding that are in high-demand across the world.

According to UK experts there is a 40,000 shortfall in people with the necessary STEM skills required to meet the demands of the UK economy.

In a widely-circulated research paper, Marjo Virnes of Autism Foundation Finland wrote that robotics could “empower special needs children to experience success in the learning of those technical skills that are central to our technology-oriented society”.

This has led to initiatives like the Special Olympics of Unified Robotics, which encourages students with diverse abilities to design, build and program robots using LEGO MINDSTORMS kits, and then road test them in tournaments.

RECCSI research manager Mei-Tai Chu said Matilda is not only enabling special needs students to develop better communication and social skills, but cognitive skills as well.

“Using this personalised approach over a one-size-fits-all model is vital, as it allows users in various contexts to independently develop unique services tailored to their specific needs,” she said.

La Trobe’s study into social robots for special needs classes is set for completion in late 2018.