David DeSteno, an asso­ciate pro­fessor of psy­chology at North­eastern, and researchers from the Mass­a­chu­setts Insti­tute of Tech­nology (MIT) and Har­vard Uni­ver­sity, are exam­ining how social robots can aid preschoolers in lan­guage learning, which DeSteno said, isn’t pos­sible with cur­rent computer-​​based learning.

You can watch a video, or play a com­puter game, but there’s no dynamic social com­po­nent in those tech­nolo­gies, which research is showing to be really impor­tant for learning in chil­dren,” said DeSteno, who runs the Social Emo­tions Group lab at Northeastern.

DeSteno is working on the project — funded by a four-​​year $923,000 National Sci­ence Foun­da­tion (NSF) grant for Cyber­learning Ini­tia­tives — in col­lab­o­ra­tion with Cyn­thia Breazeal at MIT’s Per­sonal Robots Group lab and Paul Harris, the Victor S. Thomas Pro­fessor of Edu­ca­tion at Har­vard University.

This award comes on the heels of a prior NSF-​​funded col­lab­o­ra­tion between DeSteno and Breazeal, who used the wide-​​eyed robot Nexi to reveal how people use social cues to deter­mine strangers’ trustworthiness.

To appeal to young chil­dren, the robot pro­to­type in this new project resem­bles a cute, stuffed animal-​​like dragon. Its move­ment appears very life-​​like and can be remotely con­trolled through an Internet interface.

Cer­tain non-​​verbal cues like mim­ic­king behavior to improve rap­port and social bonding, or changes in gaze direc­tion to guide shared atten­tion, are cen­tral,” DeSteno said. “When kids learn from human teachers, these cues enhance the learning. We’re designing our new dragon robots to be able to have these capabilities.”

Researchers will sit­uate the child and the robot at a table in a preschool set­ting to interact with each other and observe the exchange of social and emo­tional cues that show approval and engage­ment, such as nod­ding and eye gaze, while an oper­ator con­trols the robot from a computer.

DeSteno said it is fun­da­mental that the chil­dren have some kind of con­nec­tion with the robot in order for it to effec­tively operate as a “teacher.”

Chil­dren tend to learn and accept infor­ma­tion more readily from indi­vid­uals that they feel bonded to, so we need to make them feel like the robot is a sen­tient being,” he said.

To achieve that, DeSteno and Breazeal will draw from their pre­vious work with Nexi, in which they viewed human-​​to-​​human pairs interact and recorded and ana­lyzed all of their behav­iors, iden­ti­fying the cues that were most impor­tant in expressing how human bio­log­ical motions and social bonding work.

After testing the “dragon” robots within a preschool con­text at MIT, researchers plan to mon­itor their effec­tive­ness as a distance-​​learning tool in children’s homes, which could be espe­cially helpful for chil­dren who live in rural areas.

We hope this tech­nology will help to increase the effi­ciency by which an instructor can teach kids and reach kids in the class­room and remotely,” he said.