Stacey watches NAO and its pre-programmed dance. Copyright-The Associated Press.

To help celebrate National Robotics Week, one little robot-that-can is making its home in U.S. classrooms, helping train children with special needs and advancing science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) curricula.

The robot–named NAO–also has a snarky sense of humor. That’s because students in Hutchinson School District’s Career and Technical Education Academy can program NAO’s conversation.

“Do you like chocolate?” NAO asked instructor Steve Stacey. When Stacey answered “No,” NAO responded with “Do you even have taste buds?”–a response written by sophomore Gage Brown.

(Next page: Securing funding for NAO)

In 2012 the district received a grant worth almost $22,000, for robot acquisition, from Cargill Corporation. NAO, developed by the French startup company Aldebaran Robotics, arrived in March, and both Stacey and four advanced programming students are currently getting acquainted with the walking, talking, and Tai Chi-loving NAO, manufactured in Japan.

So far, students are sending typed messages to the robot, which repeats them back seconds later.

Stacey told the Hutchinson News that students can program the robot to do whatever they’d like it to do–an asset he says will look great on resumes and will serve as an early introduction to advanced engineering before the kids head to college.

Aldebaran Robotics describes the robot as an autonomous and programmable humanoid that offers students interactive lessons. For example, rather than calculating the velocity of a hypothetical curve ball, students work with NAO to apply the mathematical formula in a computer program.

NAO weighs 9.8 pounds and stands almost 24 inches tall. The little robot is equipped with a lithium battery, although he is usually plugged in. A camera, sensors, and microphones are also part of its anatomy, and its “ears” are speakers.

Aldebaran Robotics hopes high schools like the one in Hutchinson will incorporate robots like NAO into their STEM curricula to help stir up interest in the field, especially among female and minority students.

School staff at Hutchinson say NAO is worth the investment. Already, enrollment in its advanced computer programming class is up compared to last year’s numbers.

(Next page: NAO and autism; more on National Robotics Week)

But it’s not just budding engineers who are using NAO in the classroom–the robot also is helping children with autism.

An interdisciplinary team of mechanical engineers and autism experts at Vanderbilt University have developed NAO’s system to help children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

One example is Aiden, a young boy who has been diagnosed with ASD. In a report from the university, NAO is described as a “front man” for an elaborate system of cameras, sensors, and computers designed specifically to help children like Aiden learn how to “coordinate their attention with other people and objects in their environment.”

 Watch Vanderbilt’s video on NAO:

 

This basic social skill is called joint attention. While most children typically learn this skill naturally, children with autism have difficulty mastering it and that inability can “compound into a variety of learning difficulties as they age.”

According to a March research report, researchers found that children with ASD paid more attention to the robot and followed its instructions as well as they did those of a human therapist in standard exercises used to develop joint attention skill.

Researchers at Vanderbilt think that robots could play a “crucial role” in helping the growing number of children diagnosed with ASD. The Centers for Disease Control released new figures estimating that today, 1 in 50 children have been diagnosed with ASD.

“This is the first real world test of whether intelligent adaptive systems can make an impact on autism,” said team member Zachary Warren, director of the Treatment and Research Institute for Autism Spectrum Disorders (TRIAD) in an interview with Vanderbilt University’s Medical Center.

For more information on how NAO is programmed for ASD children, read the full story.

For more information on National Robotics Week, visit http://www.nationalroboticsweek.org/. More details are also available on Twitter (@roboweek and #roboweek) and Facebook (facebook.com/roboweek).

Follow Associate Editor Meris Stansbury on Twitter @eSN_Meris.