Southern Illinois University Edwardsville’s Dr. Stephen Hupp, a humanoid robot that is part of an SIUE research project, and graduate student Madison Schoen lead a presentation for a group of Head Start/Early Head Start students in East St. Louis.
A special visitor to the Southern Illinois University Edwardsville Head Start/Early Head Start program at the Jackie Joyner-Kersee Center in East St. Louis generated smiles and engaged children in scientific interaction.
The visitor was Mo, a humanoid robot also called NAO. The robot is part of an ongoing SIUE research project focused on teaching children about social-emotional skills within educational curriculum.
“This is the first work at SIUE that we’re using a humanoid robot with children,” said Jerry Weinberg, associate provost for research and dean of the SIUE Graduate School. “The interesting thing with kids this age is they ascribe emotions to humanoid robots, so they feel that they’re peers. That allows us to create robotic programs to help us in developing their social skills and emotional intelligence.”
Weinberg leads the collaborative research effort involving faculty and students. His team includes graduate student Ehren Wolfe, who is pursuing a master’s degree in computer science. Additionally, Stephen Hupp, professor of psychology in the SIUE School of Education, Health and Human Behavior, is helping incorporate the work into the prevention programming his students provide for children.
“We’ve been lucky to have been working with the SIUE Head Start/Early Head Start program that has invited us to provide social-emotional programming for children for decades,” Hupp said. “We’ve been using the Second Step curriculum to teach kids social-emotional skills.
“By incorporating the robot, we flipped the learning process,” he said. “So, it’s not us teaching the kids the social-emotional skills. Now, they’re teaching the skills they’ve learned to the robot. We believe people learn better when they’re trying to teach something they’ve learned to somebody else.”
Each of the robot’s movements, expressions and behaviors are programmed by the researchers. According to Wolfe, the process is like puppetry, with choreographed elements.
“My job was to develop believable expressions of emotion, body postures and gestures, so we could animate the robot and use that information to incorporate it into scripts for lessons in the classroom,” Wolfe said. “We have to look into the believability of the robot as a companion that has lifelike interactions with others.”
“Programming the robot is complicated because each arm, limb and joint is what we call a degree of freedom,” Weinberg said. “We have to coordinate the degrees of freedom in such a way that the robot can sit, stand, walk and talk. It becomes a rather interesting choreography of movements that make the robot actually look and act like a human.”
While the team has conducted pilot work with individuals, its presentations to children in the Head Start program were the first completed in a full classroom. Madison Schoen, a graduate student pursuing a master’s in clinical child and school psychology, facilitated the robot-student interaction.
“These children love learning new things, so it was exciting to see them engaging with the robot and watching their reactions to what the robot did,” Schoen said.
“Introducing STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) at a young age is incredibly important,” said Jackie Joyner-Kersee, gold medal-winning U.S. Olympian and founder of the Jackie Joyner-Kersee Foundation, who attended the presentation. “This is the entry point of curiosity, so working with a robot showed them what can be the result of learning about math, science and technology.”
“One of the greatest advantages of having SIUE as our grantee agency is that we have wonderful connections with university personnel,” added Lynnie Bailey, SIUE Head Start/Early Head Start program director. “This particular project is important to us because we know from research that the most important thing in a child’s preschool experience is their social-emotional development. So this is a real asset to our kids.”
This project is exemplary of SIUE’s teacher-scholar philosophy. According to Weinberg, the research will continue, with future possibilities of external funding that would allow the team to systematically see if the robot can help children learn social-emotional skills.
“The research work at SIUE is exciting because our approach allows faculty to teach, as well as do scholarship, and bring students into that work early on in their academic careers,” Weinberg said.
“I’m passionate about robotics,” Wolfe said. “I’ve been fortunate to have Dr. Weinberg as a mentor who has guided me in learning what goes into research, how to manage all aspects of it and how to put together a thesis that truly makes an impact. This has been a huge opportunity from the moment I first heard about the possibility of doing robotics at SIUE.”