A robot “teacher” is helping elementary school students improve their health and fitness.
By Richard Westlund
Special to UM News
PINECREST, Fla. (March 26, 2014) —
By incorporating a robot "teacher" into a multidisciplinary health and fitness project, a University of Miami School of Education and Human Development team is taking an innovative approach to addressing the national problem of childhood obesity.
"We have launched a wellness-based afterschool program in collaboration with the YMCA of Greater Miami to improve fitness, health, and cognitive function in elementary school children," said Chantis Mantilla, doctoral candidate in the school's Department of Kinesiology & Sport Sciences and director of the THINK (Translational Health in Nutrition and Kinesiology) program.
In a novel approach to making the program more engaging for elementary students, Professor Moataz Eltoukhy has introduced a NAO programmable robot – on loan from the French manufacturer – into the Pinecrest Elementary School's afterschool program. The robot can be pre-programmed to demonstrate fitness activities and lead classroom exercises, and also accept an instructor's voice or text commands to greet students by name and respond to individual questions.
Wearing a 'Canes shirt with the U logo, NAO leads the afterschool classes in fitness, dance and yoga sessions, said Eltoukhy, who earned a degree in engineering before joining the School of Education and Human Development last fall.
"NAO also gives nutrition lectures, conducts quizzes and gets students thinking about the importance of fitness in their lives," Eltoukhy said.
Eltoukhy believes the NAO robot, which has been featured in national publications, can also be an effective device for engaging children with autism, cerebral palsy and other developmental disorders, and is conducting other studies related to those fields.
"For students of all ages and levels, NAO makes fitness and classroom sessions more lively and fun," he said. "Kids love technology devices, so a robot is also the perfect tool for teaching science, technology, engineering, and mathematics STEM subjects."
Mantilla said the spring semester study is designed to assess the effectiveness of the 10-week THINK afterschool program compared with a traditional YMCA program on improving fitness, health-related variables, and cognitive function in children ages 8-12. It includes daily 60-minute fitness and activity sessions, as well as weekly lessons, laboratory, and cooking sessions, and field trips.
"We believe the THINK after-school program will result in positive changes in physical fitness, health-related variables, and cognitive function," she said, adding that the findings will used to support a National Institutes of Health grant application to expand the THINK after-school program throughout Miami-Dade County.
"This collaboration will also open internship, research, and future career opportunities for UM students, and provide training opportunities for YMCA staff from University of Miami professionals."
Support for the THINK project, developed by Arlette Perry, chair of the Department of Kinesiology and Sport Science, has been provided by Positive Promotions, University of Miami Citizens Board, YMCA, Home Depot, Compost305 and Whole Foods.
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