Minnie – The Robot Reading Companion

Social learning is a powerful way to motivate students, develop learning skill and, the interest in the subject. It improves comprehension and reinforces understanding through dialogue. Teaching and technology have, in recent years, merged more seamlessly to make learning easier for kids.

In a recently published study by the University of Wisconsin-Madison, researchers built a robot, Minnie, to serve as a reading companion to middle school students. Although there is no relation to Minnie Mouse, the robot guides and interacts with students while reading. Professor of computer sciences, Bilge Mutlu and educational psychology graduate student, Joseph Michaelis, developed Minnie to serve as a reading buddy to kids for two weeks. For the two-week program, Minnie was equipped with 25 books in a range of reading skills and story complexity. Minnie was designed to interact with the student the way a teacher or parent would while reading. Minnie can react or makes comments about the story they are reading.

Minnie the robot with middle school student

Researchers Joseph Michaelis and Bilge Mutlu believe companion robots like Minnie will soon be a fixture in homes, and they wondered if those robots could serve as social learning companions for kids. DIVISION OF CONTINUING STUDIES/UW–MADISON

The social learning theory states how people can learn from watching others. In a classroom environment, pairing up with peers to complete math problems or read a textbook chapter is a strong way to help students develop skills and interests. Learning in groups improves students’ comprehension by distributing the cognitive workload and reinforcing understanding through dialogue.

Minnie robot

With simple, oversized black eyes on a relatively featureless white globe of a head, Minnie can react and cajole and summarize and appear thoughtful. PHOTO COURTESY OF SCIENCE ROBOTICS

Researchers Mutlu and Michaelis mention that creating an initial bond is a crucial social connection. Minnie can start a conversation by recommending books like Harry Potter, Goosebumps and, genre classics like “A Wrinkle in Time.” Additionally, Minni is programmed with many reaction phrases that pair up with the reading. “When a scary part of the book happens, the robot says, ‘Oh, wow, I’m really scared.’ It reacts like it would if it had a real personality” Michaelis said. The relationship grew from there. Students expressed how the robot would express or show its emotions.

As a result, more students reported they were more motivated to read -surpassing the control group who followed a paper-based version of the reading program. Kids who read with Minnie said they felt they understood and remembered more about the books read. Students became more excited about books and attached to the robot. Minnie’s visits became special moments shared by the whole family, with the robot and humans lounging on the floor or beds. “I had families send me pictures of themselves dressing up the robot. I’d get the box back, and it would have sorts of extra books in it that were just from the kids’ shelves, just thrown in there. All kinds of random paper, markers, crayons,” Michaelis said.

Researchers hope to try out periods of interactions longer than two weeks. They hope kids social learning in can incorporate a companion robot and hopefully the whole family. Mutlu and Michaelis are already adapting Minni into also providing science studies. Furthermore, they are faced with the challenge of crafting a personality that is engaging for kids of different ages. “The biggest shock in our study is that two weeks later, the kids are still relating to the character — rather than saying, ‘This is stupid. I’m not talking to your robot anymore.'” Multu said. He attributes part of theMinni’s success to the sweet spot age of kids where they are emotionally sophisticated enough to make a connection with the robot, without questioning it too much or push the envelope.

students reading in group sitting at a table

Image by Hanscom Air Force Base


Resources for educators:

  1. University of Wisconsin-Madison article
  2. Social Learning Theory
  3. How to Motivate Children to Read
  4. Social Learning int he Classroom