MICHIGAN CITY, Ind. — Milo can dance, play, talk, walk and blink like most kids in Michigan City Area Schools. But he has one difference: He is a robot.

Milo helps students who have autism and communication challenges, as well as pre-K students with special needs in the district. A similar robot, Carver, is also in the classroom.

Michigan City Area Schools was part of an Indiana University research project to pilot Milo. Since then, the district received a grant and three more robots. Now there are two versions of Carver and Milo spread through Knapp, Pine and Joy elementary schools and Michigan City High School.

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The robots were originally created to help students who have autism, but they can be used for any student who is struggling with communication.

Milo and Carver work through the use of lessons. A special education teacher will choose a lesson from a tablet, and the robot will then speak to the student. On a separate tablet, the student is able to respond and answer.

Lessons could address how to say yes or no, or how to address emotions. There are a multitude of options for teachers to choose from.

At Joy Elementary, Milo is primarily used to help with speech and language. Molly Trout, special education supervisor at MCAS, and speech assistant Mallorie Heflin worked with students recently at Joy Elementary to help them participate in group work and individual lessons with Milo.

One student had trouble deciphering whether to say “yes” or “no.” Their lesson focused on Milo doing an action, such as closing his eyes, and the student answering what Milo did with a yes or no question.

In another lesson, students had to figure out what emotions Milo was displaying. Milo would show the students pictures of several different faces, and they would have to determine which one was showing the emotion “scared.”

The teachers said masks make social emotional learning difficult, especially for kindergarteners and first graders who have only been in school during the pandemic. Milo can help students identify emotions and see how people would respond.

Other lessons could focus on social narratives, such as making a phone call, going to a birthday party or calming down when feeling frustrated.

Trout said a lot of students bond with Milo and see him as a friend. When students came in, they were often interested in touching Milo and were fascinated in his lessons. Milo’s hands and face are a rubbery texture and he is meant to be very durable.

Milo also speaks in shorter chunks of phrases, to help students who may have processing delays or need more time to understand what he may say.

The goal is to eventually have students interact with Milo in the classroom, but teachers are still building individual students’ comfort levels. Adding a robot to a classroom with no preparation could be difficult.

Currently, students work with Milo roughly 60 to 90 minutes per week. They will often alternate use of robots with other forms of speech or communication work.

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