Potential Development School Adopts Facially-Expressive Robots

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Nina Mileto smiles as she holds her tablet and interacts with Milo, a facially expressive humanoid robot, who asks her questions about the emotions behind various displayed facial expressions.

Milo is one of the several robots adopted by the Potential Development School for Students with Autism team. These assistive robots are designed to help students like Mileto, who may have complications with communication skills.

The robots ask a series of questions from different modules, with teachers and students able to communicate with the robots through their tablets.

“The robots are designed to assist our special education teachers as they guide our students with autism towards social and emotional mastery,” says Crissi Jenkins, director of development and community relations. “They are designed with five different modules that work with students on a variety of social skills such as how to calm down, how to behave in certain social situations, [and] how to make eye contact.”

Each robot has a screen embedded on its chest, which displays features such as vocabulary words and picture icons. Jenkins believes this is an important addition, as it involves technology the students have not seen before.

“These robots are having a tremendous impact on speech outcomes, educational therapy outcomes,” she says. “As educators, our goal is to find those students with the best technology we can to reach their fullest potential and we believe these robots will do that.”

Robots like Milo are designed to assist teachers with educating students with a variety of essential skills through curriculums and modules downloaded on accompanying tablets.

Potential Development, now educating 215 students across 19 local school districts, is using six of the RoboKind robots. 

Each robot retails at around $16,000 and is sponsored by donors, Jenkins says. Sponsors include Simon Roofing, Jason Kokrak of PGA Tour Inc., the Florence Simon Beecher Foundation, the Ward Beecher Foundation, the Walter E. and Caroline H. Watson Foundation, the Panera Bread Foundation and the Cafaro Foundation.

Jenkins says the idea for the robots was suggested by one of Potential Development’s board members about 10 months ago.

The robots were first introduced into the class about two weeks ago, says Jenkins.

“The students welcomed the robots immediately,” she says. “The connection has been incredible…To watch them communicate and grow – our students’ communication is often very challenged, eye contact, holding conversations. So to see them engaging with the robots – holding their hands, hugging them, telling them they love them – has really been fantastic.”

Marleigh Gilyard, partnership success manager of RoboKind, says she joined the company in May 2020.

“I have a younger brother on the autism spectrum and he is going through transition age,” Gilyard says. “I started to recognize the need for social skills and social emotional learning and that drew me to RoboKind and this curriculum, and this technology that teaches the curriculum.”

RoboKind, which produces the robots, is a small business based in Dallas. Gilyard says her role with the company is to work with students who use the robots and find out how well they are working.

“I’ve seen incredible impact,” she says. “I have teachers tell me all the time that they wish they had this tool in their classroom. We’ve had minimally verbal and nonverbal students begin to develop speech and engage with their families for the first time. We’ve seen some really cool things.”

Gilyard says hundreds of school districts have implemented robots across the globe, and she often hears teachers complimenting the ease of using this technology.

“We have research that talks about the engagement rate. So we know that these robots engage students at a rate of 87.5% of the time versus just 2% to 3% with a human therapist alone,” Gilyard says. “When we have students that are excited about working with the robots and they’re zoned in, we are able to better facilitate that learning.”

Current modules include calm down, conversational, emotional understanding and situational, Gilyard says. The company is now working on a new hygiene lesson, which will focus on things like washing hands and hand placement.

Gilyard says she wishes this technology was available to her brother.

“I constantly wish that he had technology like this in his classroom when he was growing up to prepare him for this life,” she says. “As we talk about transition, yes this curriculum is tailored toward teaching these early education students But as they grow, emotional regulation, the ability to calm yourself down and communicate with the world around you are some of the most important skills that we can teach our students.”

Pictured: Co-teacher Kendal Ginnetti shows student Nina Mileto how to work with the robot known as Milo. The Potential Development School for Students with Autism is using six of the RoboKind robots to teach communication skills.