Inside a small room at the Chester County Intermediate Unit in Downingtown, educators swarmed around robots large and small, assorted high-tech gizmos, and presentations on laptops — but none drew a bigger crowd than Milo.
A pint-size robot with spiky hair and more facial expressions than a Parisian mime, Milo dazzled attendees at the CCIU’s first K-12 STEM Expo with his rubbery ability to show — and teach — a range of emotions, from joy to anger, for children on the autism spectrum who follow Milo’s lesson and respond on an iPad.
“That’s crazy, the detail,” said Amanda Levitan, a tech teacher at SS. Peter and Paul School in West Chester. “It’s incredible. The facial expressions are so realistic.”
The goal of the tech-heavy expo was to update and occasionally wow educators with the rapid advances in learning tools that not only use the latest in science, technology, engineering, and math, or STEM, but might encourage students towards a career path in which they’ll make the next generation of devices.
There wasn’t a flying car at Friday’s tech fair, but the creators of the Jetsons cartoon TV series in the 1960s probably couldn’t have imagined the tableau of virtual-reality headsets, buildable robot cubes, or even classroom chairs that can move for the hyperactive — a few of the roughly 18 or so inventions and products that were on hand.
“We felt there was a need to create something local to help librarians and teachers make that shift” to the new classroom technologies, said Demetrius Roberts, director of STEM learning at the CCIU. He said about 100 signed up for the event, which grew out of smaller networking meetings with librarians eager to discover how to convert their libraries into the more up-to-date “maker spaces.”
Those who came tried out creations such as Cubelets, small squares that students can connect to form a flashlight or a moving train, or can act as a motion sensor to follow the movement of one’s hand, among other things. It all depends upon how the blocks — which cost $2,500 for a class kit — are lined up.
“I think the younger kids are going to be all over this,” said Elizabeth Portuguez, a gifted and STEM teacher in Bucks County’s Pennridge School District, who gently ribbed a colleague who got the cubes to follow her hand motions: “You’re a Jedi.”
Several of the devices showed off the ability of new technology to help students with learning difficulties. That was certainly the case with Milo, the robot that aims to teach social cues, empathy, and emotional intelligence. Milo connects through lessons taught with slightly slower speech, identifiable facial cues, and a link to the iPad screen, where students watch videos and answer questions about what they saw.
Mark Losey, CEO of EdTech Consultants, local representative for the Dallas-based maker of the robot, said Milo aims to ultimately address the challenge of “how do you relate to a human being” and added that “he’s not a toy.” He’s certainly not priced like one — $6,000 for the device and teacher training in the first year, and $3,750 annually after that for updates and the port that allows tracking of student progress.
“It blew my mind,” said Anthony Rizzo, third-grade teacher at Sacred Heart School in Oxford, noting the traditional difficulties in teaching students with autism how to show and read emotions. “It’s one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen.”
Try telling that to the two teachers nearby who were immersed in a tour of the International Space Station, courtesy of the Lenovo Mirage Solo virtual-reality headsets.
“It’s going to revolutionize education,” said Katy Ferry, high school librarian at Collegium Charter School in Exton. “You can dissect a heart, go on college tours. It can bring authentic learning into the classroom.” The cost for the full-blown VR program — a 20-pack of headsets, teacher pad, a library of 1,200 Google expeditions and training — is $19,000.
Kids with an even shorter attention span might benefit from Flexible’s product — seats that actually move during a class.