UCF researchers use part of 2.5 million dollar grant to create AI to help students with Autism

An elementary school student in the Unlocking Student's Potential, a charter school system, sits in a dark tent and interacts with Zoobee's World. Zoobee's World is a computer program intended to coach students with developmental disabilities to be more comfortable with social interaction. 

UCF researchers are currently developing Artificial Intelligence (AI) for Zoobee, an animated character who interacts with students with developmental disabilities through a computer and detects students' emotions.

Rebecca Hines, associate professor and co-principal investigator of the project, said the AI computer program being created for "Zoobee's World," will be designed to help students learn skills in a comfortable setting to then help them transition to applying what they have learned virtually about social interaction to the real world. 

“Zoobee will act as a coach who models social skills and interactions so that the student receives all of the instructions through the AI program,” Hines said. 

Over the course of the next five years, a team of UCF researchers, including doctoral students, will work with the Unlocking Children's Potential (UCP) of Central Florida, a charter school system, to discover whether AI and robots can help elementary students with autism and other disabilities be more aware of their emotions and actions during social situations.

The project involves three phases, starting with a pop-up structure placed in an existing space at school, Zoobee then gradually coaching students through the program and finally providing full support in classrooms. 

During the first year of the study, the team will work with third through fifth grade students with autism and other disabilities at one UCP school site in Orlando. 

The project is funded through a 2.5 million "Stepping-up Technologygrant from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education Programs, Hines said. 

In order to gather data for how to build AI for Zoobee, elementary school test students will wear a watch-like device that monitors the users’ biometrics. The watch will be used to determine their level of stress and comfort while the student is using the AI program, Zoobee’s World. 

“Technology can be a much more comfortable environment for students with autism," Hines said. “It is a step in the right direction to gaining confidence and comfortability in social interaction.”

Joanna Couch, UCF autism disorder specialist, said she has noticed students with autism thrive with technology and tend to be more open.

“AI can be a great benefit to many students, and it can definitely become a helpful resource in making them feel more included,” Couch said. 

Tahnee Wilder is one of the doctoral students who are stepping up to help with the creation of AI for Zoobee. Wilder describes the opportunity to engage with the project as a great way to mix technology with the effort to increase social-emotional skills. 

“Artificial intelligence is what we make it, we take control of what it can and can’t do,” Wilder said. “Taking that information and research, we can really develop a program that will not only help students but also teachers learn more on how to support students with disabilities.”

Hines said the goal is to first eventually have Zoobee involved in schools across Florida and then across the country. 

“There are so many possibilities for Zoobee," Wilder said. “This is only the beginning of technology paving the way in our education system.” 

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