Yanghee Kim wins NSF grant to study robots combined with augmented reality

Yanghee Kim
Yanghee Kim

Can robots and augmented reality combine to better teach problem-solving skills to kindergartners and first-graders?

Yanghee Kim’s latest grant from the National Science Foundation will explore that question.

Kim, the NIU College of Education’s Morgridge Endowed Chair and director of NIU’s CREATE Center, received $643,000 for her three-year “IMREIL-Implementing Mixed Reality for Inclusive and Embodied Learning for Young Children” project.

The IMREIL project will advance Kim’s longtime examination of the power of human-robot interaction in elementary school classrooms. Work begins with a pilot implementation this fall, followed by full implementation with data collection in the spring.

Based on her earlier research, she is confident that child-friendly robots will positively impact the social and emotional development of children, particularly those with diverse backgrounds, through individualized instruction and conscientious observation.

“Problem solving skills are considered a building block for academic success. Now I want to design the system to help out children’s cognitive development and prepare them for their next stage of academic development,” Kim says.

“Conventional screen-based media have limitations that can be improved upon by using augmented reality and robots. Robots can successfully perform the co-learner or tutor role. Augmented reality enables children to be physically active while problem-solving and work with peer-like robots to overcome the limitations.”

Participants in the research study will “play” with a robot to find a path on the floor that will lead them to the solution to a problem while they encounter additional obstacles that are generated by the augmented reality.

As the children determine and walk their path, following the clues of sequences and symbols, Kim and her team will monitor and assess their physical and visual movements with cameras and sensors that include wireless stickers on their necks and shoulders.

“This arrangement of different technology tools will help us to get more accurate information of their efficacy in problem-solving,” Kim says. “We are dealing with 5- and 6-year-old children, and written tasks or surveys wouldn’t work to measure their problem-solving skills.”

Meanwhile, she adds, “interviews typically used for young children’s research would not provide valid information to assess their problem-solving skills because those interviews happen posteriorly. We want to measure how they develop problem-solving skills, and then get proficient with solving path-finding problems, while they are engaged in the task.”

Because the study will require a quiet, designated space – something public schools are not always able to furnish – Kim is converting Graham Hall 243 to serve that purpose.

Given the newness of the augmented reality hardware to the NIU researchers – Kim is collaborating with colleagues from Indiana University who are experienced in developing that technology – the team initially will observe the children close-up and in-person. As they develop their research design, however, they can move to a remote location.

Kim also is recruiting parents and caregivers willing to volunteer their 5- and 6-year-old children for the pilot testing while she is developing about half-dozen interactions, each of which would take about 20 minutes, which will allow her team to observe growth in problem-solving skills.

In the third and final year of the project, she will conduct the research in schools that have traditionally underrepresented populations in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) fields.

Focusing on those communities reflects and complements her existing body of work confirming the great potential, and positive impact, of robots in the development of children.

“Teachers know that one-on-one tutoring is the best form of instruction; we just don’t have the resources. This is particularly true for children who come from challenging home environments. This type of technology can democratize our educational experiences,” Kim says.

“Regardless of their backgrounds, language or sociocultural and economic status, many children can benefit from our work, and we can improve equity in education,” she adds. “In this augmented environment, children don’t have to feel inferior because of their home language or because of their skin color. I feel this effort is quite important and needed in our society.”

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