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Robotics Having ‘Astounding Impact’ In Progress Of Special Needs Students

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The positive impact the robotics curriculum is having on ESCNJ's classified students was the focus during a recent Better Together podcast. Credits: Courtesy of the Educational Services Commission of New Jersey
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 If a teacher really wants to motivate a student, “identify an activity they would walk over water to participate in,” Bright Beginnings Learning Center (BBLC) Principal Sandy Giardino advised, during a recent Better Together podcast.

Fortunately, it appears Ms. Giardino, along with several other Educational Services Commission of New Jersey (ESCNJ) educators, found that  irresistible activity last year by integrating the use of NAO Robots (pronounced NOW), into the curriculum of three ESCNJ schools, which offer specialized programs for students with Autism Spectrum Disorders, Multiple Disabilities and significant behavioral challenges.  

“Hands down, the use of NAO Robots in our special needs classrooms is engaging students in a way that we have never seen before,” Ms. Giardino said.

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As a result, students are learning valuable computer coding skills, an in demand workplace competency. Additional benefits include improved behavior and an appreciation of how collaboration with peers can be helpful in problem solving.

The Better Together integration of NAO Robots into the special needs curriculum podcast can be heard by visiting: http://cdn-media1.teachertube.com/audio604/11016.mp3

 The other educators joining Ms. Giardino on Better Together, the ESCNJ podcast hosted by Coordinator of Communications David Sandler, were equally astounded by student progress.  

“We are finding students with nonfunctional verbal abilities, and limited social and self-care skills, experiencing remarkable success,” said BBLC Teacher Naomi Glassman.

The NAO Robot, manufactured by Aldebaran Robotics in Paris, France, is 23 inches tall, weighs 9.5 pounds, has two eyes consisting of two high definition cameras, and a mouth which includes four directional microphones and loudspeakers. Those features and other elements enable students to program the NAO Robots to talk, hear, walk, identify objects, help with homework, tell jokes, and a host of other functions.

“The students at ESCNJ typically bring challenging behavioral and learning issues to the table, so the level of learning engagement the  robotics curriculum is having on special needs students  is, quite frankly, astounding,” said Dr. Scott Taylor, a member of the ESCNJ Board of Director’s Executive Committee, and Superintendent of the Highland Park School District.

“Having worked in five districts, I have never seen anything close to what is going on here at the ESCNJ, and I believe this approach is a model that many other districts should seriously consider exploring,” Dr. Taylor added.

Mr. Gary Molenaar, ESCNJ’s Assistant Superintendent for Learning and Educational Services, who was instrumental in bringing the three NAO Robots into the ESCNJ curriculum, said it is possible some students would have employable computer coding skills when they graduate.

 “As this initiative continues to evolve, many students will graduate with a solid foundation in computer coding to the extent that they could be serious candidates for employment in the field,” said Mr. Molenaar.

A key element in successfully integrating the robotics initiative into the curriculum is collaboration among staff, said Laura Cagle, another Better Together guest and a teacher at NuView Academy.

“Although we received good training over a five day period, I was still somewhat overwhelmed when it came time to implement the program,” said Ms. Cagle, a recent recipient of the Hybrid Learning Institute’s “Legend Award” for her contributions in the field of personalized student learning.

“However, my students are digital natives, so while they learned from me, I also learned some things from them. Additionally, the support I received from our administrators and other teachers was remarkable in building my skills and comfort level,” she added.

Robotics and computer coding are typically activities reserved for extracurricular clubs and higher functioning students.  However, when encouraging participation during a presentation at the New Jersey Association of School Administrators Techspo 17 convention, Ms. Glassman observed that many participants were “humbled” by the experience.

“It’s not uncommon for people to assume computer coding functions are beyond the capabilities of most ESCNJ students,” Ms. Glassman said.

“I think it was a humbling experience when some of the educators at the workshop had difficulty doing the kind of work many of our students are now capable of, which offers great insight into appreciating the diversity of the human mind,” Ms. Glassman said.

Ms. Giardino, a veteran administrator and board certified behavior analyst, agreed.

“It calls into question if the word disability is really an appropriate terminology,” said Ms. Giardino.

“Seeing the student’s progress, you begin to wonder if it’s all just a matter of some people are really good at some things, and some people are not so good at other things,” she added.

Ms. Giardino, Ms. Glassman, and others from  BBLC were one of only seven districts in New Jersey selected to receive an “Innovations in Special Education Award” for their computer coding efforts, from the New Jersey School Boards Association, and the Association of Schools and Agencies for the Handicapped.

“I think the best part of that experience was that while other districts had administrators receive the award, we had two of our computer coding students walk up in front of a roomful of people to accept our award,” Ms. Giardino said.

The largest Educational Services Commission in the state, the ESCNJ provides special education services to school districts statewide, coordinates transportation services for over 10,000 students across the state, and manages a Co-op Pricing System with over 1,100 members, the largest cooperative buying program in New Jersey.

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