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Defusing Classroom Outbursts with Robots

Imagine a future in which a robot in an elementary school classroom helps defuse a student outburst. That future is not so distant, a thesis NBC News recently broached in an extensive report exploring robotics and childhood development.

Naturally, Info Sci Postdoctoral Associate Solace Shen and fellow researchers in Cornell’s Robots in Groups Lab were go-to sources for this inquiry. A psychologist who studies human-robot interaction, Shen and her Cornell colleagues currently lead a research project considering the role robots can play in groups of children age 3 to 6. She said robots can assist – not replace – teachers in imparting conflict-resolution skills. 

Using a "Wizard of Oz" approach, in which the researchers secretly control a robot's actions, Shen is finding they can ameliorate these situations by helping children first understand the conflict. "Once they can acknowledge there is a problem, they can use the conflict-resolution skills they're already being taught to resolve things and come up with ways that everyone gets what they want," she says.

Shen points to research that shows children can benefit from interacting with robots but recognizes the importance of person-to-person interaction. 

"The goal is not to have the robot replace interactions with humans," she says. "But more to supplement them."

The article also touches on previous human-robot interaction research from Info Sci's Malte Jung, who found robots can help improve team dynamics by flagging destructive language. 

Shen and Jung's work with robots and conflict resolution among preschool children was done as part of an NSF Expedition in Computing.