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Today's news, tomorrow's lesson - 9 November

Dancing robots being used in the classroom to help children with autism

Aldebaran Robot

Humanoid robots are being used as classroom buddies to support children with autism in a project that aims to improve social interaction and communication.

Max and Ben, two knee-high robots who move like humans and who can dance to Michael Jackson's Thriller, were developed by researchers at the University of Birmingham's School of Education. The university has showcased them at the Festival of Social Science this week, focusing on a project at Topcliffe Primary School, where the robots have been aiding children's learning since March.

Topcliffe is the first school in the country to trial the use of innovative technology for children with autism. The intelligence of such students is often marked by an exceptionally high capacity for focus and attention to detail but tempered in and outside of the classroom by a difficulty with social interaction. Topcliffe is a mainstream school with 30 autistic pupils for whom it receives specialist funding support.

Research has shown that children with autism tend to respond well to computers and technology, which they find safer and more predictable than complex human interactions. Karen Guldberg, director of the Autism Centre for Education and Research at Birmingham, has been working with a research team to anaylse how best to use the robots. She said: "We have been looking at how technology can support pupils with autism to communicate more effectively.

"Pupils and teachers are experimenting with the robots and other technologies in a developmental way and they are showing significant benefits for the classroom. The robots have been modelling good behaviour and acting as buddies."

The school has been using Max and Ben in phonics lessons and to help teach games and activities to children aged five to 10-years-old – including Tai Chi. While the idea of robots in the classroom has so far belonged to science-fiction – and might send alarm bells ringing among human teachers – headteacher Ian Lowe said they were tools that could tap into children's motivation and encourage them to communicate: "The robots have been brilliant at supporting autistic children with their learning.

"You can program them to teach language, play games and model behaviour. We have even used them in assemblies. In the future we are looking to see if they can be used to support learning not just at school but at home as well."

Related resources

Boy in a Bubble

  • This animation from SEN assist is a great way to prompt discussion about how autism can affect some children.

An overview of autism

  • This resource was devised to help teachers and teaching assistants understand the effects of autism and how best to support pupils.

Autism spectrum: A resource pack for school staff

  • Use this resource pack as a source of information on autism spectrum conditions for school staff.

Autism Awareness collection

  • Take a look at our special selection of resources and advice to support the teaching of pupils with autism.

Further news resources

First News front page

  • Help your pupils understand the features of the front page of a newspaper.

Write all about it

  • Get students creating their own news report with this step-by-step guide.

What is the News?

  • A sociological and media perspective on what makes an event 'newsworthy'.

On the box

  • Help pupils to write their own TV news broadcast with this handy PowerPoint.

Structuring stories

  • A scheme of work to help students structure news stories.

In the news this week

News items

Barack Obama has won a decisive victory in the US presidential election after months of campaigning, and has promised the American people that "the best is yet to come".

A former history teacher has recreated a First World War trench in his Surrey garden and now plans to launch a website that will allow pupils to explore the front lines.

Gems Education, a private school group operating dozens of schools across 10 countries, has opened its first school in Africa with the Gems Cambridge International School in Nairobi, Kenya.

New York, the 'city that never sleeps', was shut down last night as Hurricane Sandy tore across the east coast of America.

In the news archive index

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