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Hi, robot Kids embrace the rise of the machines
Age, Melbourne  by Henrietta Cook
08 Nov 2016
General News - page 2 - 504 words - ID 682961579 - Photo: Yes - Type: News Item - Size: 683.00cm2

There's a new kid in school with flashing eyes who is a friend, a teacher and a superb dancer.

The 58-centimetre robot is called Nao and promises to revolutionise the way students learn.

It's the latest educational toy schools are rushing to buy - if they can afford the $13,000 to $25,000 price tag.

Bialik College in Hawthorn East purchased one for $15,000 last year, and its students were quick to assign it a gender and a name - Rosie.

Grade 4 student Romy Szmulewicz counts Rosie as one of her friends, and programs her at lunchtime in the school's "makerspace", a place where students use technology to tinker, create and code.

"She is very playful, and she is very funny at times and answers your questions happily," Romy, 10, said. "Sometimes she understands you and sometimes she doesn't."

Rosie has touch sensors and cameras and responds to commands like sitting down, standing up and lying down. She can also recognise people's faces.

"They can talk to you and interact with you like a real person," Romy says. She recently programmed Rosie to sway to hip-hop dance Nae Nae and to macarena.

During our interview, Rosie's eyes started blinking with excitement,

and she rose from the ground to perform K-Pop hit Gangnam Style, her plastic arms flailing in the air.

The rise of robots in the classroom is attracting a lot of interest from academics. Teachers are sceptical about the machines and fear they might take their jobs, according to recent research by Omar Mubin and Muneeb Imtiaz Ahmad from the University of Western Sydney.

"This hypothetical bias against the robots comes from science fiction movies where robots take over the world," Mr Ahmad, a PHD student, said.

He doesn't think that robots will replace teachers, but sees them as valuable learning tools. As well as sparking student interest in coding and robotics, the robots can hold flashcards to improve their vocabulary and teach mathematical concepts.

The research also found that while students wanted the robots to be more autonomous, and adapt to their behaviour, teachers wanted complete control over them.

Separate research co-authored by Therese Keane, a senior lecturer in education at Swinburne University, found that students had an unexpected emotional connection to the devices. "They saw it as a friend in the classroom, they didn't see it as an object," she said.

The robot's human-like design and imitation of human traits made it instantly familiar to students.

Teachers involved in the research said that the robot helped students develop 21st century skills like collaboration, communication, creativity and critical thinking.

The Nao robot has also been used to teach children with autism how to recognise emotions.

It is understood that the Victorian Education Department is exploring how the technology could be used in the state's schools. The Australian distributor of the robots, The Brainery, says hundreds of the robots are being used in the country's schools, TAFEs and universities.

Caption Text:
Biallik College grade 4 student Romy Szmulewicz with robot Rosie. Photo: Simon Schluter

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