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Meet Milo: Robot helps special needs children understand emotions

Photo by Lynne Deliman

Elementary students (Rylan, Hazel, William, JaiQuan, Mason and Arjun) pose with their teachers and support workers (Mrs. Recker, Mrs. Bentz, Mrs. Grega, Miss Sumpter and Mrs. Carlson) while new-arrival Milo the robot takes center stage.


By Jamie Wiggan

Montour educators hope an emotionally sophisticated robot may be able to engage some special education students beyond the reach of their human teachers.

Early signs look promising. When Milo arrived in the classroom Sept. 29, students who usually struggle making eye contact immediately fixed their gaze on the 2-foot-6-inch robot, according to Sheri Sumpter, a life skills and autistic support teacher at the elementary school.

“They certainly were mesmerized,” she said.

Manufactured in Texas by specialist tech firm Robots4Autism, Milo is programmed to teach a range of specific skills-based lessons as well as games and relaxation techniques.

While research shows students with autism and related disabilities may have an easier time interacting with robotic technology, the theory is that Milo can ultimately help them apply their new skills with other humans.

“The robot is the delivery mechanism, but you’re still getting the same result… because the students are more likely to engage with the robot,” said Bob Isherwood, district special education director.

Isherwood believes robotic technology may play a larger role in the future of special education.

While students continue learning with Milo, the district is collecting data for a study that will show how effectively he’s helping them progress with their social, emotional and verbal skills.

Should the results demonstrate clear success, Isherwood said the district may consider buying additional robots for the elementary and middle schools. Each one costs between $20,000 and $25,000, and can be available in different genders and skin tones.

Isherwood, a full-time contractor, drew on connections at Slippery Rock University – where he also teaches – to source the robot, which he sees as fitting into “a comprehensive special education program” across all three school buildings.

Isherwood joined Montour several years ago while the district faced lawsuits stemming from issues with its special education services, and has since brought in a range of new programming for the school system’s 475 special needs students.

The program has now gained a regional reputation for excellence, he said, and is even drawing in new families to the district.

Isherwood said credit belongs to the school board and administration for offering support and approving funding for his initiatives, which include a customized dyslexia program that reaches 75 students and recent efforts to amplify adulthood transitionary programming through workforce placements.

“It’s a compliment to [Superintendent Christopher Stone] and the board,” he said. “They’re very receptive.”


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