Learning With Robots, One Brick At A Time


Samuel remembers the day his nine-year-old child came home from school, excitedly looking for robots to play with.

“He was climbing the cupboards looking for his robot toys and he has not stopped playing with them since. He keeps them beside him, playing with them – adjusting and turning the limbs and parts,” he said.

Such a scenario may sound uneventful to most parents, but for Samuel whose child has autism spectrum disorder (ASD), the reaction was a significant one. And it began that day in school when a group of Universiti Teknologi Petronas (UTP) researchers brought a few robots to his son’s school.

The robots, made with the Lego EV3 Mindstorm, had been specially programmed to teach children with special needs. “For my son and the other children this was something very new and children with ASD like to play and see something new,” added Samuel.

The robots are the feature of Associate Professor Dr Noreen Izza Arshad’s ongoing research. In the last few years, Noreen who is a senior lecturer at UTP’s Positive Computing Research Cluster at the Institute of Autonomous Systems with her team of 10 researchers including Dr Ahmad Sobri Hashim and Dr Mazeyanti Ariffin have been delving into the use of robots as a teaching aid for children with special needs, in particular those with ASD.

The research began sometime in 2015 when Noreen and Dr Norshuhani Zamin found that most of the special schools and institutions that are dedicated for autism are still using the conventional method in their teaching delivery. These include coloured cards, pictures, and sound instruments to name a few.

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Assoc Prof Dr Noreen Izza Arshad explaining the drawbacks of conventional teaching methods to special needs children.

“This is where problems arise because the teaching method is too monotonous. Children have a short attention span, and it is even worse for children with ASD because they have a hard time focusing on one thing at a time.

“These Lego robotics kits are attractive, with a powerful computational platform, and have been widely used in recent years for educational purposes. But often robots, computers, and tablets are not introduced to children with special needs and parents and teachers asked us why this was so. Even in schools, although there are robotics classes they are rarely open to children with special needs,” she added.

Delving deeper into the use of reprogrammable and multifunctional robots yielded encouraging insights into its use for children with special needs – with research pointing to toddlers considering robots as peers rather than toys because of its flexible capacity and features that appear to be more interactive and engaging.

“Robots also appear to be more effective because of the interactive and engaging multisensory design features compared to a software or computer-mediated therapy,” she said.

“There is also research that revealed that a child’s interest towards a robot naturally becomes the reason for their voluntary communication,” she said, adding that there is a suggestion that because the features of a robot do not resemble human beings, this indirectly encourages these children to communicate.

She elaborated that studies have also shown that a robot’s appearance is seen as the main focus that attracts autistic children and triggers their curiosity towards the robot, as was the case with Samuel’s son.

Similarly, it is believed that sound, music, vocal messages, colour, visual cues as well as movements are considered meaningful actions that can aid in persuading a positive attitude.

Given these advantages, Noreen and her team visited a few schools, namely SK Coronation Park in Ipoh, SK Sultan Yussuf in Batu Gajah and SK Kampung Boyan in Taiping that cater to children with special needs.

“We discovered that the syllabus for children with special needs is different compared to those in the mainstream classes. We looked at the topics and subjects taught and selected those that can be delivered by robots. These include the teaching of numbers and Jawi, and the recognising of coins, body parts, animal sounds, shapes and the states of Malaysia,” she said.

Say It Again, Mr Robot

Noreen’s research is funded by the Education Ministry under the Prototype Research Grant Scheme, which she received in 2015. With the RM110,000 grant, the team studied the current teaching delivery method for the various modules in the syllabus and worked on developing the robotic component.

In the case of teaching pupils to recognise the different coin values, for example, the team developed a robot structure that could calculate the circumference of each coin and identify it.

“So when the child puts the coin on the robot, it will read the coin and say the value out loud,” she explained. To date, the team has developed 10 robots that could deliver various learning modules in fun ways.

Besides the abovementioned schools, the team also visited the National Autism Society of Malaysia (Nasom) Ipoh branch and a few autistic children at their homes. Collectively, tests were carried out among 30 autistic children and the results showed that the robotic intervention enhanced the learning environment and could boost the children’s understanding by 50%.

“Let’s say the teacher is teaching them about colours, with the previously used method, they can only attentively listen for five minutes. But with the Lego EV3 Mindstorm that we have programmed, they can stay focused for 20 minutes and interestingly they also started to talk, touch, take turns, volunteer, and seem to enjoy the learning,” said Noreen.

According to Noreen, feedback from teachers has been positive. “Most teachers say there is a breakthrough in getting the children to focus. The robots hold the children’s attention longer compared to previous teaching aids. They used to get grumpy by the first hour but here they play with the robots for hours without throwing any tantrum,” she quipped.

Irwana Mohd Amin, who teaches Year One and Year Three children with special needs, believes that robots can have a positive impact on children with special needs as well as slow learners.

Cikgu Irwana (as she’s often called), a teacher at SK Coronation Park in Ipoh, recalled the occasions when Noreen and her team brought the robots to the school.

“The children were all very excited because even though we do use teaching aids it’s usually flash cards or a laptop. It’s not as sophisticated as a robot,” she said.

The robots were tested in classes with slow learners and children with mild ASD aged between nine and 11 years.

“The robot was programmed to teach the children about flags of the states of Malaysia. The robot was something very new to the children and we saw that they were more focused and found the whole session fun,” she added.

Irwana, who has a Master in Special Education, reckons that the robots would be useful for teaching children with special needs. The setback, however, is the cost, especially for a public-funded school.

“If there were organisations that would sponsor the robots then we can put them to use to teach the children.”

Noreen concurs, adding that a big plus would be for the Education Ministry to set aside the funds for schools to purchase the robots to be used as teaching aids for children with ASD.

Robots For All

Despite the encouragement received from teachers and parents, it has not been bouquets all the way for the research team. There have been criticisms, for instance, that robots will render the children more uncommunicative.

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Robot-makers: Noreen and the team of researchers at the Positive Computing Cluster at UTP’s Institute of Autonomous Systems.

“This is not the case. The robots are not there to eliminate communication. It is a tool to help create the engaging and immersive learning in fun ways that would indirectly welcome communication,” says Noreen.

Still, she concedes that there is a concern that children with ASD who may already have problems communicating, will retreat further away from people if they have a robot.

“So we are still exploring ways where we can programme the robot to teach communication skills.”

The Lego EV3 Mindstorm was also introduced to children in mainstream classes. At the Kausar Excel Centre in Bandar Seri Iskandar for example, the children were eager to interact with the robot.

“It was a good exposure to technology for the children because they were amazed at the inventiveness of the technology, and it also boosts their creativity and imagination,” said Erni Yentti Amir, who is the founder of the learning centre.

The plan going forward, said Noreen, is to publish instructional guides on how to programme the robots to teach the various modules – for example, numbers, colours or shapes. These are the guides or manuals that Noreen and her team developed from scratch based on the teaching syllabus for children with special needs.

“To date, there isn’t a guide in the market that is as comprehensive as ours. With this guide, all that the teacher or parent needs to do is build the robot using step-by-step instructions and programme the robot based on what is to be taught. Basically from switching on the robot to actually using it for teaching activities,” she added.

To that end, UTP is in talks with Sasbadi Holdings Bhd – the education and solution provider for Lego Education robotics products in Malaysia – to get the guides onto bookshelves.

“My hope is to make the guides available to everyone. Eventually, I even hope to see these special kids using the guides and even programming the robots themselves,” said Noreen.





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