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Robots are aimed at helping Nelson students with social, emotional learning
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Robots are aimed at helping Nelson students with social, emotional learning

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ARRINGTON — There’s a new teacher for students with special needs in Nelson County, and its name is Milo.

In an effort to help address many difficulties Nelson County Public Schools’ special needs population faces in the areas of engagement, social exchanges and cues and behavior and emotional regulation, the division is participating in a new program called Robo Buddies.

The lifelike Milo devices are produced by ROBOKIND and its Robots4Autism program — an intervention program that delivers developmental instruction modules that teach “critical functional skills.” The facially expressive and socially interactive robots teach social and emotional skills to children with autism.

Milo can repeat lessons consistently as many times as necessary. He’s also equipped with a small screen on his chest to reinforce learning.

“The other thing about the robots and one of the reasons they are effective: Milo speaks very slowly and clearly — that’s intentional,” said Sandra Irby, director of special education. “Research shows us that slowed-down speech is easier for folks with autism to comprehend.”

Milo delivers instruction with direction from the teacher, who uses a tablet to choose lessons and record student responses.

While other available robots address social and emotional learning, Irby said Milo offers more variety in its lesson planning and has a longer track record with large-scale implementation in some states.

“The reason we picked Milo over others was the scope and sequence of the lessons they provided,” Irby said, adding that lesson plans are available to fit whatever a student may need. “It was very comprehensive compared to other products out there.”

In a video made available to members of the Nelson County School Board, Shannon Graham, speech pathologist with the school division, said records indicate that as of October 2019, nearly 10% of NCPS students served through a special education program held an identification of autism spectrum disorder.

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That translates to 11 students in elementary school, eight in middle school and 11 in high school.

“By nature, [the robot] takes the pressure off of having to interact with a human therapist and intrinsically motivates students to learn … and increases opportunities to practice social interaction in a safe environment,” Graham said in the video.

According to a memo, in 2019 the General Assembly passed an appropriation that provides funds to explore the use of robotic devices to aid both academic and social emotional learning for students with autism.

Nelson County Public Schools in January was awarded the maximum amount of $20,000 to purchase the robotic devices from the Virginia Department of Education. The division owns four of the devices, including its variants Jett and Robon.

Originally, Irby said, NCPS was on a timeline to have the robots in use by late spring, but those plans quickly were derailed because of the COVID-19 pandemic, which resulted in schools across the commonwealth shuttering their doors.

The Milo robots are available to students in any grade level and have been in use by the division since September, Irby said. While she couldn’t say how many students currently are using them, she said nearly 20 students are eligible to use them.

Irby said the robots also may be used by students who don’t have autism but have significant communication barriers.

Milo also has lesson plans that can be incorporated both in person and virtually during a time when only a select number of NCPS students — based on their individualized education plan and parent input — are receiving in-person instruction. All other division students have been learning 100% virtually and will continue to do so for at least the remainder of the fall semester.

“It’s just highly dependent on the situation, so I’m glad we have the capacity to deliver Milo either way,” Irby said of students eligible to receive in-person instruction.

Irby said the rollout for Milo has been slow because of the pandemic, but students and teachers are responding well to the robots, although staff still are familiarizing themselves with the devices. She said she hopes broader implementation will come in the spring, which will provide more feedback on how students respond to Milo.

“Students with autism react extraordinarily positively when they first engage with Milo,” Richard Margolin, co-founder and CTO of RoboKind, said in the video. “They’re really excited to see a cool robot, and then when they see him move and see his face move, they’re really amazed and engaged.”

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