Teachers and parents are always going to be the most important people responsible for helping children learn. Laura Boccanfuso, founder and CEO of Van Robotics, knows this very well, but is convinced that most teachers (and many parents) could use some help. Children have different learning styles, and need differing amounts of time and attention to achieve their educational goals, but most schools require a standardized curriculum. Teachers often struggle to meet the needs of more than 20 students in a classroom of varied style-learners.
Because of this, many school districts have already incorporated technology into their classrooms to enhance their students’ learning experience. But most standard technology and the accompanying software is not sophisticated enough to gather information necessary to adapt to the individual student’s learning preferences. Meet ABii, a small robot teacher’s aide, who delivers grades 2-5 core subject instruction by engaging students with fun, social interactions designed to improve individual academic achievement.
Before establishing Van Robotics, Boccanfuso earned an MS in computer science from Bowling Green State University and a Ph.D. in computer science from the University of South Carolina. Her focus was on artificial intelligence and human-computer interactions, and she was specifically interested in how to engage students with new materials. Working as a researcher for Yale University, she learned that the most effective methods involved continual monitoring and adapting to individual stress levels, and that this is especially important for children on the autism spectrum, or who have ADHD or other developmental issues.
After establishing Van Robotics in 2016, Boccanfuso developed eight prototype robots with 22 math lessons. In early 2018 they launched the first pilot program in schools in Alabama, Kansas, New York and South Carolina. Seed money was provided through Tech Stars Austin, South Carolina Research Authority, and Right Side Capital Management, totaling $1 million during the period January 2018 through June 2019. On January 27, 2018, Van Robotics was chosen as one of ten companies for the Techstars Austin 2018 accelerator, and The Tech Tribune named it as one of the very best tech startups in South Carolina in 2020.
Boccanfuso and her company conducted a great deal of research to create ABii’s design and appearance. They were surprised to learn that younger children liked a “retro” look. As Boccanfuso told Michelle Kung, of Amazon Web Services, when kids told Van Robotics what they thought a robot would look like, “humanoid it was not!” So ABii is a modernized version of the old wind-up robots, with big circular purple eyes, a white oval head and “claws” instead of hands.
ABii is simple to operate and uses a desktop computer or laptop (mobile screens are too small). Initially teachers input information on the student(s) who will be using the ABii. The individual student is led through a customized program with a specific lesson, testing the student’s knowledge and making a final assessment. ABii is designed to learn individual behavior patterns by noticing stress levels or waning of attention. She is able to respond by offering a game to play or a short break. (Back to the Future: Van Robotics Embraces a Retro Feel for Its Robot Tutors, by Michelle Kung, March 28, 2018)
ABii can teach individuals or small groups. Unlike some other robotic devices, ABii is rather anthropomorphic, and is designed to have a unique and engaging personality who will sing and dance along with the students.
Because of ABii’s unique abilities, Boccanfuso emphasizes, learning can occur at the student’s individual pace, following their unique learning patterns, and this makes ABii one of the most effective educational robots available. According to one study, she says, students who used robot tutors improved their test scores by 52% (compared to 39% for students who did not use a robot tutor).
ABii also enlists her online “friends,” Wanda, Mario, Jolt, Vee, and Url, who help make the learning experience fun and exciting. According to the website description of these friends, Mario has a pizza parlor, but can’t do fractions, and Wanda travels around the world, but can’t figure out currency conversions!
ABii currently contains lessons for 2nd-5th grade math and a reading curriculum for K-2nd will be released in the Fall of 2020. ABii automatically updates her software, including any new lessons, behaviors and user information. Teachers are also able to update as necessary. As Boccanfuso told Holly Beilin of Hypepotomus, “It’s not a nice ornamental object ….It’s really involved in the entire learning process.”
Eventually Boccanfuso hopes to build versions of ABii that can be used in after-school programs and in hospitals with patients suffering from Alzheimer’s or dementia. ABii’s software program is available for both school and consumer home use with a flat hardware fee and monthly subscription service.