Movia robots help schools reach children on autistic spectrum

Published on Wednesday, 10 January 2018 14:43


BRISTOL - Harry the Robot, seated on a table, stood up and said, “Hello” to the Board of Education. The board members and audience laughed and some responded “Hi, Harry.”

“Thank you for having me here tonight,” said Harry, a humanoid creation about a foot and a half tall, with a smooth white exterior accented in bright blue, and friendly, child-like face and voice. “It is very humbling to be able to speak to you and answer any questions you may have about our goals.”

Harry is a product of Movia Robotics, which moved to the city in 2017 after winning a business grant from the city. The firm approached the school district with an innovative plan to use robots to interact with students with autism, explained Michael Dietter, district director of special services.

Dietter said the district got funding for the project through the Stocker Foundation, the Barnes Foundation, and the Main Street Community Foundation.

The Movia team ran a pilot program for about eight weeks at Hubbell and Stafford elementary schools, twice a week, with Chris the robot (Harry’s twin) and a human facilitator teaching social pragmatic skills to a small group of children in different grade levels. The program ended right before the mid-winter break.

“We think it went well,” Dietter said. “The students were very engaged, they seemed to enjoy the activities. In the coming weeks we’re going to be looking to see if the students maintained some of the skills they learned with the robot.”

“The students were learning primarily social skills - basic greetings like saying ‘hello,’ shaking hands, reciprocal conversation like ‘Hello, how are you?’ ‘I’m fine, how are you?’ those types of things,” he said.

As Harry described it, “We apply evidence-based practices into how we teach students activities that build off the students’ individualized education plans. So we stick to our goals and adjust them to the students’ level of learning.”

“It has been a very pleasant collaboration” Dietter noted. “We certainly would be open to further collaboration with them, but we are very interested in understanding the long term benefit for our students - that will either be supported or not by the data as we move forward.”

The facilitators who went into the schools with Chris were Rob Parenti, Movia’s vice president for business development, who has a background in special education and two young children in local schools; and Sherry Wong, who is completing certification as a Board Certified Behavior Analyst.

Movia, located in the Walter Ingraham House on Federal Hill, was the $50,000 first place winner in the Bristol Development Authority and StartUP Bristol Task Force business plan competition held last July.

The company got its start about eight years ago as a research entity in partnership with the University of Connecticut, funded with a $1.5 million grant from the National Institutes of Health. CTO Timothy Gifford was researching the pioneering concept of using robots in special education, working with schools in the Storrs area and in West Hartford.

Within a few years it grew into a startup business located in Hartford, as entrepreneur Adam von Gootkin and others got involved. Von Gootkin had lived in Bristol so he felt it was a good community to move to.

Movia uses robots from various Chinese manufacturers. The robots are mostly similar looking to Harry, and range from about eight inches to three feet in height. The company uses its own WOZ software, named for the Wizard of Oz, to control the robots.

“Through our research we have found that children on the autism spectrum see the robot as its own social entity - not as a teacher, not as a parent, not as another peer,” Parenti said. “The amazing thing is the software allows us to completely customize the education and delivery of social skills lessons to the autistic students in a fun and motivating way.”

Children with autism have a hard time with social cues such as body language and voice inflections and tones, he explained. The robot can deliver a lesson in a patient, consistent, non-judgmental way, without triggering the anxiety these children often feel.

Parenti described the brief trial Movia did last spring at Hubbell, which convinced the school district to do the pilot program. He said some of the teachers commented, “What you were able to do in 20 minutes we couldn’t do in almost 100 school days.”

Posted in New Britain Herald, Business, General News on Wednesday, 10 January 2018 14:43. Updated: Wednesday, 10 January 2018 14:45.