Little robots are being recruited to help out in the classrooms, and accompany children with learning challenges, including those on the autism spectrum.

These so-called 'social robots' are fast becoming a global phenomenon in educational settings.

Centre for Literacy - University of MaltaCentre for Literacy - University of Malta

In Malta, they are still being trained for local classrooms, with the first robot, called Tommy, recently dropping by at two kindergarten classrooms where he danced and practised some yoga moves with children.

Tommy is being 'trained' as part of the EduRoboKids project run by the University of Malta Centre for Literacy. The project will see the deployment of two other social robots, but also research, led by Prof Charles L Mifsud, into the interaction between humans and robots.

The team is interested in how children respond verbally and emotionally to robots in learning situations.

According to Mifsud, children with autism are especially interested in robots because they are interactive programmed devices. In fact, robot-based programmes are often cited to be potentially beneficial for children with autism because they offer the possibility of fairly predictable and consistent interactions.  

The project will test child engagement, language development, interaction and communication levels and the gaining of literacy and life skills through these robots, with the ultimate aim being to assist seven to 10-year-old children with learning challenges. 

What is a social robot? 

Assistive robots are becoming more commonplace, helping out with household chores, doing the heavy lifting at Amazon warehouses and assisting medical teams to perform heart surgery.

Centre for Literacy - University of MaltaCentre for Literacy - University of Malta

Social robots are a type of assistive robot that often resembles a human: they typically have limited expressivity and basic human-like behaviour including movement and speech. 

They can communicate through vocal interactions and body language and are able to carry out pre-programmed activities, including playing games and dancing.

Tommy can gesture expressively, track faces, imitate eye contact by moving its head, replicate emotions by lighting up the contours of its eyes in different colours and record environmental information using cameras and sensors.

The two-year €85,000 project is being financed by Residency Malta Agency.

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