DANVILLE – Three robots were unveiled Wednesday that will be used in Danville District 118 schools to improve the social skills of students with autism.
The humanoid robots, all named MILO, were made possible through a partnership with the Danville Public School Foundation and Robots4Autism.
“District 118 is going to be the fifth school district in the state to use these robots,” Bob Richard, executive director of the foundation, said, adding that the robots and curriculum are already used in 34 states.
Curriculum has been developed incorporating the use of the MILO robots that will help District 118 teachers deliver developmental instruction modules. Those modules will teach critical functional skills to students diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder.
“MILO is one portion of the curriculum,” Richard said. “The robots will be used to engage students who have autism.
“The robots have facial expressions and speak at 80 percent of the speed of human speech,” he added. “It is cutting-edge technology.”
A demonstration of the interactive MILO robots was conducted Wednesday afternoon, with Mark Denman Elementary School special education teacher Michele Craig and Meade Park Elementary School special education teacher Rachel Webber there to answer questions about how the robots would be incorporated into the curriculum.
“The student and the teacher both have tablets to facilitate the lesson,” Richard explained.
During the demonstration, a MILO robot showed his 11 different facial expressions and his ability to dance, but he also explained in his own words that he can “read a student’s emotions” and know if a student is “getting frustrated with a lesson.” The robot also records data of the interaction with the student that can be reviewed later by teachers and therapists.
“We trained last week on them and have been using them every day since,” Webber said.
Craig, who teaches functional life skills to third-, fourth- and fifth-graders, agreed. “We’ve used them every day in the classroom, and we’ve already had successes with them. About half of my class is enamored with them.
“Our kids are getting up and dancing with them,” Craig added.
“I have one little girl with autism who never makes eye contact with an adult or says hello,” she said.
But once MILO started talking, “she immediately made eye contact with MILO and said ‘hello’ right back to him,” Craig said.
In just a matter of days, Webber said her 11 Meade Park students have really taken to MILO.
“It works. I’ve had it only five days and it’s giving them a chance to communicate like they never have before,” she said.
“They love it,” Webber added. “They were engaged from the second we brought him out.”
“It’s great to hear they’re having early success with it,” Richard said, adding that the robots will not become a substitute for the teacher.
“It’s just another tool in their tool box,” he said. “It’s another way to reach their student.”
The Danville Public School Foundation will pay for the three MILO robots for three years with $10,000 grants each from Iroquois Federal Foundation and the Wheeler Foundation, along with a $1,600 donation from the Danville Chapter of AMBUCS to be used for children with disabilities. District 118 will pay for the curriculum for three years.
“After three years, they’ll be replaced,” Richard said of the robots.
Molly Stanis, District 118’s special education director, said the district would look at possibly expanding the use of MILO robots in other classrooms.