A high-tech teaching “buddy” is helping the fight against Covid-19 – and bringing a touch of the future to classrooms.
Named WallBo, the social robot has boosted handwashing awareness in two Glasgow schools, fuelling expectations similar devices will soon be assisting pupils across a wide range of learning areas.
It was installed at St Bride’s Primary in Govanhill and also Broomhill Primary as part of a trial, with children benefitting from story and song-based advice delivered in a Scottish accent.
Follow-up questions with pupils showed the majority were keen to see the robot return. The schools also saw an 85 per cent increase in handwashing compliance and a 35% improvement in knowledge about hand hygiene.
WallBo was designed by Glasgow University researchers, who are refining the technology to make it autonomous.
Lead developer Dr Amol Deshmukh, from the University’s Institute of Neuroscience and Psychology, said: “Our observation is that the children like the features on WallBo. [It] looks like a hand and it also has moving eyes, which enhances the overall ‘being watched’ effect. Also, the voice of WallBo is a childlike voice, so it basically creates this connection with children. They think it’s like their friend, their buddy.”
Dr Deshmukh said the research team was working to improve WallBo’s algorithm so it can independently monitor and recognise handwashing movements.
“During the trials in the two Glasgow schools, we teleoperated the robot as a proof of concept, so there was a human observer who was watching the handwashing steps and teleoperating the instruction provided by WallBo to the children,” he told The Herald. “But we have a lot of data that we have collected from the trial and which is helping us to build the artificial intelligence system, especially looking at computer vision and machine learning, so WallBo can automatically detect those steps and prompt the desired response from the children.
“I’m happy to report we have almost 85 per cent accuracy and are pushing towards more than 90% accuracy with the data we have collected from the trials. So we are working towards consolidating the autonomous technology into the upgraded version and, for the next trial that we will be carrying out in schools, the autonomous version will be deployed.”
Dr Deshmukh said it was likely the more sophisticated robot would also be tested in Glasgow, although there is a possibility of projects in India and Australia.
“It depends on the timeline and the access that we can get to schools [under] Covid restrictions, but it’s more likely we’ll be getting access to the schools in Glasgow,” he added.
Previously called Pepe, WallBo was first developed to help reduce levels of child mortality in India. “The results we saw in our tests there were very encouraging and, once the Covid-19 pandemic began, we started to consider the positive impact WallBo could have in preventing transmission in children by encouraging improved hand hygiene,” said Dr Deshmukh.
He is also predicting the device will be part of a wave of robot-based approaches in education.
“Previous research has indicated that social robots can create a positive learning experience for children, for example, [using robots to help teach] children writing skills, or even teaching children something [such as] map-reading skills, and other science, technology, engineering and maths skills,” he added.
“There are a lot of robotic applications which are aimed at improving learning for children in different domains. Social robots have already shown a lot of promise and you see many innovative robot products being brought to the market for teaching children a second language, handwriting skills and coding skills as well. There seems to be a trend where many innovations are emerging.”
Louise Kerr, headteacher at St Bride’s Primary, said: “We were delighted to trial this really exciting initiative and the children were fully engaged and very enthusiastic to take part. Importantly, hand washing techniques are now much more effective in school.”
Glasgow councillor Chris Cunningham, the city’s Convener for Education, Skills and Early Years, said: “Our lives have changed dramatically since the beginning of the pandemic and it’s been especially hard on some of our youngest pupils to get used to new ways in our schools… WallBo has been an innovative and fun way for the children to learn a very important part of helping reduce the spread of the virus.”
To find out more, visit www.wallbo.co.uk or @WallBo_robot.