FHSU robots


Robots have been a source of fascination for centuries, at least since Leonardo Di Vinci designed the first humanoid robot in about 1495, and the opportunity has come for Fort Hays State University to embrace robotic technology.

You might even say that the time is Nao.

Pronounced "now," Nao is an autonomous, programmable humanoid robot that was developed by Aldebaran Robotics, a French company headquartered in Paris. FHSU recently purchased two of the Nao robots, which will be introduced into the curriculum in various ways.

The two Nao robots are owned jointly by the Science and Mathematics Institute, Forsyth Library and the Division of Student Affairs. Dr. Paul Adams, director of the Institute and interim dean of the College of Education and Technology, received funding from the FHSU Foundation to acquire the two robots, with warranty, for a total of $30,500.

The robots are housed in the MakerSpace room in Forsyth Library, where they are available for research, teaching and public demonstrations. "MakerSpace is a place to learn about new tools and techniques, just like libraries have always been," Adams said.

When an inanimate object can behave in a human-like manner, it really does inspire a sense of fascination. That was evident on Friday and Saturday, Sept. 12 and 13, when FHSU faculty and staff, KAMS students, and teachers from Hays USD 489 gathered in Custer Hall for Nao training. For the 16- to 17-year-old students and the, ahem, slightly older professors, it was like Christmas morning. With knitted brows they hunched over the computer consoles like unwrapping a present, then reacted with obvious delight when the Nao carried out a programmed command.

The students from the Kansas Academy of Mathematics and Science at FHSU, the state's premier residential learning experience for qualified high school juniors and seniors, did not stay for the full training sessions. In just the few minutes they had, though, some of the KAMS students had successfully programmed simple commands into the robots.

"This will provide our students with an excellent opportunity to get involved with cutting-edge technology and apply it to research," said Dr. Roger Schieferecke, director of KAMS. "We believe we are the only college in the state that has them as part of the regular curriculum, so it gives our students a unique opportunity."

Robert Stokes, president of Stokes Educational Services, Carl Junction, Mo., and Bill Gill, CEO of William R. Gill & Associates, Pittsburg, Kan., conducted the training sessions. Stokes demonstrated how a Nao could be programmed to perform Michael Jackson's "Thriller," complete with music and accompanying dance moves. He said the Nao also could be used in teaching. For example, it could be programmed to recite Dr. Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech in Dr. King's voice and then respond to questions.

Stokes said the robots, with their 25 motors, 25 degrees of motion, and onboard camera and audio capabilities, could even be taught to play soccer. Four-member teams of Naos participate annually in the international RoboCup. They are not operated from the sidelines like a remote-control car, he emphasized. Rather, they are programmed ahead of time to perform independently. They can see the ball to shoot and defend, distinguish teammates from opponents, and decide on their own whether to pass the ball or shoot on goal.

As impressive and uncanny as it might be to watch the robots emulate human movements, it is their ability to act independently that has tremendous applications in education and medicine.

"It makes us better as a university because we're pushing the envelope in being innovative," Adams said. "Our students will learn how this can have value in the real world." Agreeing with Schieferecke, Adams said he believed FHSU was the only university in Kansas that is now using the robots in the general student population.

Stokes said research has shown that robots can produce significant results as an assistive device in both education and medicine. In one study, he said, a Nao was introduced into a group of autistic children who previously were unable to interact with their teachers. Within an hour, the children were interacting with the Nao, and, even more remarkably, their ability to interact transferred almost immediately toward their teachers. In medicine, he added, research has been done by sending a Nao home with a patient to monitor medicine and in attending to elderly patients with dementia who are less threatened by a robot than a person.

The robots provide a motivation in teaching because children have an intrinsic interest, and the children can learn to communicate a concept or an emotion by mimicking the robot. For example, Stokes said, a robot might instruct a child by saying, "When I'm angry, I pump my fist twice." Then the autistic child learns that he can express his anger by pumping his fist twice.

Carol Murray, school psychologist for USD 489 and the Hays Special Education Cooperative, said studies have shown that autistic children can interact with a computer longer than with a person, and they can interact twice as long with a robot as with a computer. "Major universities are looking at the efficacy of teaching children with autism and other developmental delays using Nao," she said, adding that she would do research with children at Lincoln Elementary School with help from teachers there who will determine what skills need to be taught.

"The lesson plan will be programmed into a Nao at Fort Hays State, and then we'll study which way they learn best, which way is most advantageous for the kids," she said.

Dr. Diane Plunkett, assistant professor of teacher education at FHSU, will participate in that local research. Her doctoral dissertation was on the quality of interaction when assistive technology is involved, and she saw a demonstration of Nao last spring. "We thought, 'Wouldn't it be cool if …'" Now that "if" has become reality. She will take the robots into classrooms, working not only with children but also in teaching special ed teachers.

"Young children look at animation as very real, but not threatening," Plunkett said. "A robot can say something and it's perceived as neutral." For example, she said, a robot could ask, 'Do you need to use the bathroom?' and a child who otherwise might not be responsive would respond appropriately.

The next step, she said, would be to make robotic technology more available in the schools. "If it makes a difference for some children," she asked, "how do you get it to more children?"

Adams said he would start small in introducing the Naos into the FHSU curriculum. "We'll use it in research and marketing, but most of all in helping our students put their knowledge to use," he said.

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