A companion robot called Matilda not unlike the robot nurse Baymax from the film Big Hero Six is being trialled to help children with special needs in the classroom.

La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia, has teamed up with Waratah Special Developmental School to conduct a trial of a social robot named Matilda in special needs schools.

The focus has been on robotic technology, which delivers emotional assistance and companionship over physical services.

Matilda was put into a number of classrooms to help teachers in creating positive social engagement and entertaining learning activities for students.

Research Project Manager Seyed Mohammed Sadegh Khaksar, from the La Trobe Research Centre for Computers, Communication and Social Innovation (RECCSI), said the robot is being personalised to empower teachers and enhance their work.

“Matilda can recognise human voices and faces, detect emotions, read and recite text, dance and play music,” Dr Khaksar said.

“Our aim is to adapt these features in a way that will complement a teaching environment and provide tailored support to teachers and students.

“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.”

Dr Khaksar said feedback from teachers – taken before, during and after classes – has been crucial in helping shape and develop a more effective companion robot.

“The teachers taking part in this trial are able to tell us what it is they need from Matilda and which of the existing services need to be adapted or changed to better suit their needs,” Mr Khaksar said.

“For example, one of the services we are co-developing with Waratah Special Developmental School is a bullying support service to be programmed into Matilda.”

In addition to teacher feedback, student interaction has proved overwhelmingly positive.

“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,” Dr Khaksar said.

“Because the robot is patient and non-judgemental – as well as being interactive – the students have been able to form a type of bond with it.

“The robot can speak to students, read and act out characters in books, as well as set tasks. But it can also repeat things hundreds of times if necessary and not tire of it.”

While the trial is in its early stages, what do some special needs educators this side of the Tasman, think of the idea?

Charlotte James is the Senco at Papamoa’s Tahatai Coast School. Tahatai is well known for its inclusive programmes and work with their mainstreamed special needs students.

She is interested in the idea of Matilda, and said she would be keen to see how it works in real time.

“I like that it has been designed with their personal and social needs as the focus. I’d be interested in trialling this or something like it, to see what a difference it could make to our students.”

Tahatai values inclusion for all children, not just those with special needs, says Charlotte.

“We are very proud of what we have achieved here and we work hard at it. Our students are main-streamed with a resource centre. The children all spend their mornings in class with a fully-adapted programme supported by our extremely supportive teachers and staff.

“We use assistive apps that can enhance their learning. As long as the technology is pertinent to the child’s learning we are open to it. And it’s great if it can make a subject a child doesn’t find too enchanting come to life. It does really depend on the child what tech they are drawn to. Just like all children, something can be the flavour of the month then it’s out.”

Regardless of Matilda’s efficacy, Charlotte says there’s nothing that could replace her staff.

“We could never replace our exceptional specialist staff. You can never underestimate the importance of their individual and personal experience as teachers, and the effect of that on our kids here at Tahatai.”

Scott Groombridge of Robotics in Schools is based in the Hawke’s Bay. Robotics in Schools aims to teach teachers how to incorporate STEM into their classes.

Scott says a companion robot sounds great, but the lack of robotics in New Zealand classrooms is not because teachers are scared or resistant to robotic technology and the changes it could bring to the curriculum.

“Teachers aren’t too interested in robots because they’re too busy,” he says.

Scott is a parent of three children. His two younger kids are at Maraekakaho Primary in Hawke’s Bay. He found a whole lot of robot kits not being used at the school and said hey let’s make these – let’s do this.

“Teachers whether in special needs or main stream schools are just too tired currently to take on any more. They need more support to ensure they can teach with or about new technology.”

Meanwhile, Waratah Special Developmental School Principal, Jennifer Wallace, said school staff, have found the ability to work with the university researchers helpful.

“It’s been a fantastic experience to help develop specific activities and adjustments for the robot, to address the individual needs of our students and monitor their progress,” she said.

“We’ve seen an increase in students’ willingness to engage with the robot and an improvement in communication and social skills. Our students are listening and attending to the robot, responding when their name is called and following the robot’s instructions.

“We’ve found our students are highly motivated to participate in activities facilitated through the robot and they are demonstrating an increased ability to wait and take turns after spending time with the robot.”

The study into social robots for special needs classes is set for completion by the end of this year.

Matilda was originally co-created in partnership with NEC Corporation.

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