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The University of Montreal and of the world

The University of Montreal and of robotics that help children learn

Thierry Karsenti

How can Nao, a 58-cm-tall robot, work wonders with autistic children and students in underprivileged areas? Thierry Karsenti, a professor at the Faculty of Education who has been researching this for three years, is a fountain of information on the topic.

There are two parts to his experiment. First, he practises what he calls robot therapy with youth with autism and students with learning disabilities, with whom he seeks to develop cognitive, linguistic, and social skills. The results have exceeded expectations: increased attention span, socialization, and language development on the rise — and that’s just the beginning.

Second, he visits primary and secondary schools in underprivileged areas where he teaches students how to program the robot. Again, the results are spectacular. “We believed in the kids’ potential,” says Thierry Karsenti. And these students, who often have learning difficulties, have proven him right: success rates are growing and math grades have increased dramatically.

But, beyond the research, it’s the social impacts that bring Thierry Karsenti the most joy. “The students are motivated to come to school. They develop a greater sense of their abilities and better self-esteem. And that confidence carries over into other areas of their lives.” 

Why has Nao been so successful with young students? The humanoid robot resembles a little person: it has two arms, two legs, and a head. “The students don’t feel judged. They see it as a toy that they can quickly make dance or sing.”

Life isn’t easy for these students. Programming a robot is a major success and we’re only just starting to measure its benefits. “It allows the children to dream,” says Thierry Karsenti. “Maybe of a career in the sciences.” 

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