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You Visit Tour. Webb Lion Fountain. June 1 2017. Photo David B. Hollingsworth

Robots Steal Show at Education State of the College Address; Used by ODU Researcher to Break Down STEM Barriers

It was your usual Old Dominion University State of the College address. Until it totally wasn't.

Pausing her address to faculty and staff of the Darden College of Education, Dean Jane Bray stepped to the side and suddenly the powerful opening chords of Metallica's "Enter Sandman" blared through loudspeakers in the lecture hall. This was NOT what attendees were expecting.

Then, suddenly, another surprise. Small white robots marched purposefully onto the stage, the recipients of the metal musical intro.

Bray introduced the "real stars" of the State of the College address: OD1 and Professor Book, robots produced by French company Aldebaran Robotics, and used by Darden College faculty for different educational applications.

"Now watch this," Bray said. The robots launched into a dance to Michael Jackson's "Thriller," and the audience was convinced they had never seen a State of the College address like this.

Sitting in the front row, however, faculty members Helen Crompton and Jennifer Kidd were not surprised. In fact, they were controlling the movements of the robots through their laptops.

Crompton, assistant professor of Teaching and Learning, acquired the first of the two robots, with an intention to use it to break down barriers for non-traditional students in STEM education.

"It's a way to take difficult-to-learn subjects, for example girls learning computer coding, and making it attractive and certainly more fun. It breaks down stereotypes of male coders working independently on their computers," said Crompton, who began using the robot with her pre-service teachers this summer.

"Learning difficult subjects, such as coding, can be perceived very differently when a physical manifestation is observable," she continued. "Girls, who may not be interested in coding naturally, can see the purpose of what coding can do."

Learning coding is a recent trend in K-12 education. Many pre-service teachers attending the instructional technology classes can initially be anxious of new technologies; coding in particular is hard for less tech-savvy students to grasp. The motivational factor, a key obstacle for educators to overcome, is obvious. With user-friendly programs, the students can easily make the robots move, talk, dance and seem almost human, Crompton said.

Crompton keeps OD1 in her office and said she will find him joining conversations because his sensors received a visual or audio cue. She said the robots are so naturally disarming that they help teachers get over their own reluctance to learn technology.

Crompton plans to use the robots in studies of efficacy of educational methods with underrepresented students and young children, in school settings and at ODU's Children's Learning & Research Center.

Crompton introduced one of the robots to the instructional technology class taught by Jennifer Kidd, senior lecturer of Teaching and Learning. Pre-service teachers and visiting 8th grade students chatted with the robot and were able to program it to perform various sequences of actions, such as talking and walking.

Already, the robot has increased the number of curiosity seekers who visit Crompton's office. One of the people most intrigued with the new teaching aide was the Dean herself, who purchased the second robot so it can be used for other research projects in the College.

"The Darden College is particularly proud and also very excited to have Dr. Helen Crompton as one of our strong researchers and excellent teachers," Bray said.

"As an international expert in mobile learning, she brings a distinction to the College that is unique, motivational to both students and faculty and most importantly, is grounded in new research based advancements. These fantastic robots are a great example of this."

In the past year Crompton was the recipient of two awards; the Teaching with Technology award 2014-2015 awarded by ODU and Teaching Innovation and Excellence award from Darden College of Education.

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