Robot Helps Smithton Students Learn, Teach Lessons

Glados is only 2 feet tall, but she has made a big impact at Smithton Middle School.

Glados has helped Charles Hoover’s seventh- and eighth-grade computer science students learn about programming and writing code, giving them their first steps into potential STEM-related careers. She has played Simon Says and a Simon-like memory game with Christy Segress’ students who have autism, helping them improve their socialization and language skills. And along the way, Glados has taught some of those students compassion and the value of helping others.

Glados is a Nao robot, an autonomous, programmable humanoid robot developed by Aldebaran Robotics. “She” first appeared in a Smithton classroom in 2014. The students in Hoover’s first class to work with Glados (pronounced like Gladys) named her after an AI computer system from the Portal video game series.

Glados became part of the Smithton curriculum after Hoover approached CPS Practical Arts Coordinator Craig Adams about teaching a programming class to help expose his students to coding — something for which he said parents and students had been “chomping at the bit.”

“I’m a firm believer that programing and coding should be like math and science — part of the curriculum,” Hoover said. “It’s the 21st century reading, writing and arithmetic.”

Adams purchased Glados for Hoover’s classroom with help from a grant from the Columbia Public Schools Foundation.

Hoover’s students are assigned the task of programming behavior for Glados to engage with their cohorts with autism, trouble-shooting along the way if a particular behavior was not effective.

“We targeted greetings and social conventions,” Segress said. “The students programmed the robot, watched it interact with a student using their program, and then we did some troubleshooting between myself and Mr. Hoover so that the student could reprogram the robot based on the needed adjustments.”

Eighth-grader Caleb McElmurry and his partner programmed Glados to play Simon Says, where Glados would instruct the student to do something and would recognize when the instruction had been followed. He said the end result of watching the students interact with the robot was his favorite part of the project.

“It teaches us it’s not always for a grade; there’s other reasons” to do things, McElmurry said. “You get the satisfaction of knowing other kids are enjoying it, too.”

Hoover said Glados has been a good tool for teaching programming because the software is straightforward and easy to pick up, but has enough layers of complexity that students who advance quickly can do more with it.

Segress has seen the benefits of Glados in her classroom as well.

“We did observe an increase in social skills, a willingness to interact with the robot and an increase in language skills,” she said.

At $15,000, Adams said, purchasing a robot for each building is cost-prohibitive, but Hoover said he would eventually like to acquire at least two more to share with the other schools.