Electronic 'tutors' help teach students at Boys & Girls Club

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Allison Castillo, 8, a member of the Boys & Girls Club of Hilton Head Island, works on a math game with one of the ABii learning robots recently brought to the club. AMY COYNE BREDESON

The Boys & Girls Club of Hilton Head Island recently acquired five new math tutors.

These tutors are not your typical after-school educators, though. They are desktop-size robots that use artificial intelligence, and they seem to be making learning fun for children.

The club's director of education, Kassie Wiedower, runs a math club on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and said the children seem to be much more excited about working on the lessons now that robots are involved.

"It's definitely helped with math attitudes," Wiedower said. "Anything to make math exciting is wonderful."

Boys & Girls Club members in grades 3 to 5 who are enrolled in the math enrichment program get to practice their skills with the help of the ABii robots.

Created by Vän Robotics based in Columbia, ABii comes with software that connects to a computer, then goes through a lesson with individual students. Using artificial intelligence and data analysis, the robots tailor lessons to the needs of each student.

The software is designed to track the performance of each student, with sensors that detect if a child is stressed, bored or not paying attention.

When the software detects that a child is having a difficult time, the robot suggests taking a break to play a game, practice breathing exercises, or get up and do a little dance.

When students answer problems correctly, the robots praise them with fun phrases such as "Bazinga," "Awesome sauce," or "You totally rocked this lesson."

"It's really good for kids," 8-year-old Allison Castillo said. "It helps me so much with my learning and to get good grades at school."

Club member Chyna Ramos, 8, said it's a lot of fun doing math with ABii.

"It teaches you a lot of things," Chyna said. "And I think it helps you learn stuff that you don't know."

The Hilton Head club's director, Kim Likins, said staff members looked over students' report cards and realized many of them had huge deficits in math. They also realized the children had a total lack of confidence in their math skills and were hesitant to even try to solve problems.

So, when Likins was approached by Vän Robotics about being part of a beta study using the ABii robots, she was eager to give it a shot. The club was able to purchase the robots thanks to a grant they received through The Ward Foundation.

"It really seemed to fit what some of our kids were struggling with - lack of confidence, attention deficit and stress," Likins said, "as well as just the lessons themselves."

Amy Coyne Bredeson of Bluffton is a freelance writer, a mother of two and a volunteer with the Tuberous Sclerosis Alliance.

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