The tutor helps students with reading and math and can speak several languages. The tutor keeps an eye on students’ attention spans and has ways to help them stay focused. The tutor offers lots of encouragement and will even break into a celebratory dance when the moment calls for it.
The tutor is a robot. It has a name, ABii, and it’s the brainchild of Columbia startup Van Robotics. The concept of a robot tutor sprang from work Laura Boccanfuso conducted while at Yale University.
“I was doing research in robotics for kids with autism,” says Laura, who is chief executive of Van Robotics. “I just loved it, and I was looking to continue that work.”
Much of scientific testing includes a control group — a cohort whose test results can be compared to the experimental group. In medicine, a control group will often receive a placebo while the experimental group receives the drug or treatment being studied. As Laura was testing to see how a robot tutor would interact with students with autism, she also had a control group of students without autism working with the robot. Results from that group sparked an idea.
“We saw that the kids that were in the control group were learning faster with the robot than with other learning apps,” Laura says, “so, why not open it up to the mainstream?”
With the plan to create a robot and curriculum that could assist all types of students, Laura launched Van Robotics in 2016 while at Yale. She started out building robots in her workshop at home.
ABii stands for A Bot for Intelligent Instruction. Designed for students in kindergarten through fifth grade, it can deliver lessons in English, German, Hindi, Mandarin, and Spanish. Along with math and reading courses is a social-emotional learning curriculum that aims to improve behavior by helping students to become more self-aware.
“It’s really an incredible little robot,” says Nancy Turner, Ed.D., director of mental health with Rock Hill Schools. The district has 145 robots across its elementary schools and has used the social-emotional learning curriculum extensively. “It has fun social interactions. It’s motivating and helps kids improve.”
ABii is about 15 inches tall. Its purple “eyes” light up, and it’s able to make subtle movements. ABii can stand on a desk next to a computer while a student, typically wearing headphones, participates in a lesson during an independent study period.
“ABii really shines in that individual learning time when there’s very little supervision,” Laura says. ABii and the student interact during the lesson without the shyness that might accompany raising a hand in class or working with other students. “Social robotics is such an impactful tool because it’s personified.”
As students go through the lesson individually or in a small group, ABii lets them know whether they’ve answered questions correctly. It can adjust the lesson to focus on areas that need extra work, and it continually encourages the student. Using artificial intelligence, it follows the student’s gaze to determine if a break is needed because the student’s attention is trailing off. At the end of the lesson, it can dance for the student and provide data for the teacher.
“It gives them that positive reinforcement and affirmation and it says their name, which is very helpful,” says Markesia Jones, kindergarten team leader at Joseph Keels Elementary in Richland School District Two. In delivering a lesson, ABii tells stories using a rotating group of characters with various learning challenges. Principal Alvera Butler says students relate to these characters.
After Alvera learned about ABii at a conference, she started a pilot program with six robots across four kindergarten classes. They hope to expand to first grade next school year. Windsor Elementary in District Two is also in the process of implementing the robots.
An earlier pilot program showed a majority of students improved at least 34 percent in as little as three math lessons with ABii. That led to a grant from the S.C. Department of Education that supported 500 students across 30 schools in 16 school districts. Additional research showed students improved 15 percent in math when using ABii, versus 3 percent with online applications alone. For reading, those numbers were 24 percent and 13 percent, respectively.
Rock Hill Schools has used ABii through several rounds of grants, starting with a single robot in each of eight elementary schools in 2021. Nancy says students were immediately fascinated.
“We initially got a lot of calls from parents,” she says. “Children would come home and talk about ABii, and parents thought it was a new kid in class.”
tandrick Rhodes had two robots in his Rock Hill Schools special education classroom for children with behavioral and emotional challenges. He had one ABii connected to his smartboard while he taught a lesson, with a second ABii connected to the classroom laptop for the students to work with individually. He started with the social-emotional learning curriculum and then added math and reading lessons.
“I saw the most evidence with the social-emotional learning piece,” he says. Standrick is now an exceptional student education coach with the district. “With the use of ABii in conjunction with my teaching, I saw growth faster. They weren’t just getting the lesson from me. They were reinforcing it with ABii during the week.”
Laura decided to make Van Robotics her full-time work in 2017. Having lived in the Midlands prior to New England, she said it seemed natural for her and her family to move back. Van Robotics set up shop in the business incubator at the University of South Carolina.
“Van Robotics is a good example of what happens when our community comes together to support entrepreneurship and innovation,” says Chad Hardaway, the incubator’s director and deputy director of the university’s Office of Economic Engagement. “They’re a textbook example of how to develop a startup and a new technology.”
Van Robotics spent about a year and a half in the incubator, which is in downtown Columbia. The facility provides 45 startups with office and meeting space. “We serve as a resource aggregator and provide access to the resources of the university,” Chad says. “We also help companies go for federal grant funding.”
One aspect of the incubator is the opportunity for fellow entrepreneurs to rub shoulders and talk about ideas. Laura says she was able to connect with other startups while in the incubator. Eventually, the company grew to the point where it moved into its own office space. The Van Robotics team, which now numbers more than a dozen, resides in an office building near the Governor’s Mansion. In addition to ABii, the company is developing a robot that teaches piano to older adults with mild cognitive impairment.
Chad touts Laura’s fundraising acumen. An unexpected opportunity to attract capital arose when the producers of the “Shark Tank” television series reached out to Laura.
“I did not seek out ‘Shark Tank,’” says Laura, who says that when they first contacted her, she thought it was spam. “We had been developing the product and testing it. We were getting ready to launch at the end of 2019.”
The show features a panel of investors, some of whom are celebrities like Mark Cuban, the tech billionaire and owner of the Dallas Mavericks basketball team. Entrepreneurs pitch their business ideas to the “sharks,” who ask tough questions and decide whether or not to invest in the startup being pitched. Laura was not enamored of the idea of putting herself through the process.
“I had to put my own reservations and fears behind me,” she says. “I thought it would be great exposure.”
It was, even though the sharks chose not to invest in Van Robotics. The “Shark Tank” episode was taped in September 2019 but didn’t air until May 2020, when the pandemic was wreaking havoc with schools across the country. At the time, there were classroom and home-study versions of ABii. As school districts were locking down, budgets in flux, a surge of parents started inquiring about the robot.
“They were concerned their kids were missing so much school,” Laura says. Sales of the home version took off. “That really helped us keep the momentum going. By June, a definite improvement came in sales that sustained us through the summer and early fall.”
Van Robotics has since phased out the home ABii. The classroom version sells for $1,499, and Laura says several thousand are in use now in 36 states and seven countries. In addition to classrooms, ABii is part of afterschool programs at places such as Boys & Girls Clubs.
Another 500 ABii kits are being used in Van Robotics’ Classroom to Career program. The nine-week program encourages interest in STEM fields among high school students. The C2C curriculum culminates in a student assembling an ABii.
“When it’s complete, they will deliver it to an elementary school student, who will then filter into the STEM program,” says Nancy, whose district also participates in C2C.
Much has been made of students potentially falling behind due to the pandemic. Indeed, the 2022 National Assessment of Education Progress showed that among 9-year-olds, scores dropped 5 points in reading and 7 points in math compared to 2020. The National Center for Education Statistics said it was the largest average score decline in reading since 1990 and the first ever decline in mathematics.
Could working one-on-one with ABii make up for pandemic learning loss? Laura says while no silver bullet solution exists, “ABii provides a mechanism for students to catch up that hasn’t been available before.”
Laura says students are hungry for new technology. Nancy agrees, pointing out that students became much more adept with computers by necessity due to remote learning during the pandemic. “Because of what we had to do the last couple of years, they’re much more open to new technology.”
Robotics is a broad space that covers everything from ABii to aerial drones. A 2022 study published by the National Library of Medicine gives examples of robot baristas, machines designed to interact with bank customers, and the LoweBot, which helps shoppers find items inside cavernous hardware stores. In a survey by automation technology firm ABB, 75 percent of U.S. businesses noted robotics and automation will play a “significant” role in addressing supply-chain issues.
Sourav Banerjee, Ph.D., professor of mechanical engineering at the University of South Carolina, says robotics is a big part of automobile manufacturing, cell phone manufacturing, and the semiconductor industry and is expanding to other sectors. The use of robots to disinfect planes, trains, and public buses will last beyond the pandemic, he says. Agricultural robotics will soon assist in crop management, from planting to harvest.
“Medical industries have barely scratched the surface of the use of robotics,” Sourav says. “Recently, small-scale use of robotics could be seen for educational purposes.”
While students would be the end users of ABii, the robots’ success could reside with teachers. Standrick points out that you can’t simply sit students in front of devices. And when it comes to new technology, teachers have some learning to do, too, lest ABii sit on a shelf. “It’s really important that teachers are supported in setting up ABii,” Standrick says. “If you can get over that first hurdle, then they will use them.”
Laura recognizes that. She describes Van Robotics as a “people-centered technology company.”
“We’ve realized schools really need help with implementation of technology,” she says. “We go into the classroom with them, we conduct an observation and we make suggestions.”
She says the extra coaching has been a game changer and while it’s a lot more labor intensive, it’s worth it. With her academic background, her goal is not just to sell gizmos but to help kids learn.