With the touch of a screen, Pepper, the robot, came to life.

Jentry Wetmore, 7, was there for it.

She started moving her hands like a musical conductor as soon as the 4-foot-tall robot began talking, playing music, and waving its plastic human-like arms, fingers, and hands. Eventually, the second grader broke into a dance right there in the library at Eastern Montgomery Elementary School in Elliston.

“It’s so fun,” Wetmore said after she slowed down to catch her breath. “I like robots.”

Her reaction matched many of the other students in the midst of a loud library scene on a recent Wednesday afternoon. Some sat on the floor trying to coax Aibo, a robot dog, to fetch a ball and walk toward them. Others experimented with oranges and a tomato that, when hooked up to a laptop, made different sounds at the touch.

There was lots of laughing, even squealing.

That’s actually the purpose of the program, which is meant to help students become familiar with the science, technology, engineering, arts, and math fields.

A team of Virginia Tech researchers is studying the ways that children process technical information while learning the fundamentals of robotics, such as controls and basic programming. But there’s more than just technology on the table.

At the end of the 13-week program, students perform a theatrical production for their families, using the robots as acting companions. The program, in partnership with the Boys and Girls Clubs of Southwest Virginia, includes sections that allow the students to act, dance, draw, and listen to music. A Halloween play is planned as the finale of this Eastern Montgomery experience.

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“We wanted to help children exercise their creativity and have fun while learning about robots,” said Koeun Choi, assistant professor of human development and family science at Virginia Tech and one of the leaders of the project. “My main goal is to better understand development happening earlier in life and how we can use the digital environment to support children’s learning.”

The idea for a robot theater program started with Myounghoon "Philart" Jeon, an associate professor in the Grado Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering at Virginia Tech. Jeon previously worked on a similar project with robots and children at Michigan Tech, before he joined Virginia Tech five years ago.

Last year, Jeon decided to bring the program to Virginia Tech, working with mostly schools in rural and underserved areas, and he recruited Choi to help. Together, the two are continuing the program beyond its initial one-year period, which was funded by the Institute for Creativity, Arts, and Technology (ICAT) and the Center for Human-Computer Interaction at Virginia Tech.

Last year’s project also included faculty researchers from the School of Performing Arts and ICAT.

Myounghoon "Philart" Jeon shows students how to operate Pepper, the robot.
Myounghoon "Philart" Jeon, an associate professor in the Grado Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering, shows students how to operate Pepper, the robot, during the robot theater after-school program at Eastern Montgomery Elementary School. Photo by Luke Hayes for Virginia Tech.

This fall at Eastern Montgomery, the focus is introducing robots as social creatures more so than science experiments. The group of robots, which the research team purchased and programmed, talk, move, and respond to the students.

“We really socialized those robots and introduced them as our companions,” Choi said. “We are curious if it will alter children’s perception of robots. We focused on the robot that has features that can act like humans or animals. It could be through speech, gesture, or facial expressions.”

During the second half of each week’s one-hour program, Jeon and Choi, along with a group of Virginia Tech undergraduate and graduate students who work in the researchers’ labs, ask individual children questions. They talk about everything from if the students think robots breathe, whether they eat food to survive, or can they label and group the robots based on functionality.

Shuqi Yu, a graduate student in the Department of Human Development and Family Science who helps with the robot program, said she expects to use this work to inform her own research about how technology may help the well-being of families of children with autism.

Ultimately, the Eastern Montgomery students’ curiosity is an important barometer for the researchers. 

“Being comfortable with technology, even though they don’t know yet how to control it, this may truly spark their curiosity,” Choi said. “We are focusing on their comfort with uncertainty.”

Koeun Choi shows students how to connect oranges and a tomato to a computer program that makes different sounds.
Koeun Choi, an assistant professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Science, shows students how to connect oranges and a tomato to a computer program that makes different sounds. Photo by Luke Hayes for Virginia Tech.

Along with the research mission, the robot program fulfills an important purpose for the Boys and Girls Clubs organization, said Emily Pinkerton, director of development for the nonprofit.

“We want to provide these students with opportunities that they may not have otherwise,” she said. “A lot of our kids’ parents may not have the money to send their kids to a summer camp program. If they have that interest in STEM and robotics, we can bring these types of experiences to our club.”

The interest certainly is there for the students at Eastern Montgomery, said Brad Wooten, who is the school’s unit director for the Boys and Girls Clubs.

“They are always asking for a reminder of what day they [Virginia Tech researchers] are bringing the robots so they can make sure they get to stay longer than usual to participate,” Wooten said. 

The research team expects to continue the program in the spring, perhaps with preschool children, Choi said.

By Jenny Kincaid Boone