YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio (WKBN) – There are new teachers in the classrooms at the Rich Center for Autism at Youngstown State University.

They have a special way of reaching the students in ways that are sometimes impossible for humans.

Jemi is a two-foot-tall robot being used to catch and keep students attention. The Rich Center uses three of them, which cost over $12,000 apiece.

“It’s an iPad, it’s a robot. Key instructional methods all kind jumbled into one, and I think it’s very rewarding and engaging for students,” said Greg Boerio, executive director.

The robots help with socialization development. One deficit for people on the autism spectrum is recognizing emotion and how to respond properly. The robot helps teach students ways to recognize emotion, such as a raised eyebrow or open mouth.

“They’re amazing. Their facial expressions, their abilities, and it’s almost as if they’re able to build a rapport with the student through instructional practices,” Boerio said.

The robots also teach students to mirror what they’re seeing from a robot, including raising a hand or even dancing.

Greg Boerio and Karen Larwin are YSU professors who are researching how students are improving their social and emotional skills. The robots have been very helpful in their first year of use.

“The robots themselves are kind of rewarding, engaging and intriguing. And in just under a year of implementation, we’re seeing very successful results,” Boerio said.

Most of the Rich Center students get to work in individual sessions with the robots, and a teacher is on hand for help and support. Graduate students from the YSU psychology program are utilized as the human facilitator. The goal is to find which factors make a difference in student outcomes.

“That we know, hey, students between this age and that age who get the robot intervention X number of minutes per week might see some of the best results,” Boerio said.

The robots are used in more than 400 schools, including Potential Development in Youngstown.
It was researching the robot at the same time as the Rich Center and neither knew the other was checking them out.

Boerio said the research helps create strong connections with undergraduate and graduate programs at YSU. The research was introduced by Boerio and Larwin earlier this month at the American Evaluation Association Annual Conference in New Orleans. “