F&M Stories

Child-Robot Research Merges Psychology and Technology


“What is a robot’s favorite type of music? Heavy metal.”

Rising Franklin & Marshall senior Tracy Yang and juniors Emily Peeks and Georgia May laughed at the joke spoken by the white robot, Misty. The crew deserved this much-needed break after reaching their goal for research subjects— an entire week early. 

Yang, Peeks and May are Hackman scholars researching with Associate Professor of Psychology Lauren Howard and Assistant Professor of Computer Science Jason “Willie” Wilson to test robot-child interaction and learning. The project is a collaboration with Professor Peter Marshall and graduate student Allison Langer at Temple University. The project originated when Howard, whose previous research focused on children’s social learning, connected with the researchers at Temple investigating outcomes for children using robot teachers. Howard proposed the study to Wilson, whose research is on the use of robot assistance for vulnerable populations. 

Even though both Howard and Wilson have previously mentored Hackman student researchers in their laboratories, they were surprised by the cohort’s speed and ability to adapt.

“We are really blown away by the amount we have been able to accomplish in such a short time,” said Howard of their ambitious goal to study 30 children in the five-week study window. “These students really killed it.”

The students were integral in every part of the process. Yang, a double major in cognitive science and computer science, controlled the robot from behind a one-sided mirror. Meanwhile, Peeks, a psychology major, and May, a double major in psychology and business, organizations and society, alternated their roles of instructor and human helper. The undergraduates not only worked on data collection, but also were involved in adjusting the research questions and reflections they asked the subjects.

“I didn’t expect undergrad research would be anything like this,” Peeks said. “I came in for my first day and Professor Howard said, ‘We’ll be reading all of the [prior] research, and we start getting participants in the lab next week.’”

"The most rewarding part was interacting with the families in the study and bringing them into new areas of knowledge."

– Emily Peeks

Over five weeks, the students, none of whom had formally worked in a research lab, became more confident in their abilities and developed a strong sense of teamwork. Over that time, they accomplished their set research participant goal early and continued to gather data and observations about the future of children learning using robot assistance.

All of the students expressed interest in pursuing research in the future. May came away this summer wanting to engage in more psychological studies for children.

“I didn't realize how much I would love the process itself,” May said.

"I knew a lot of people did research [at Franklin & Marshall], but I didn’t think I would be one of those people. Now I can’t imagine not doing it.”

– Georgia May

When asked how their education at F&M prepared them for graduate-level research, the students acknowledged that their classes gave them firsthand knowledge of data collection and analysis in a lab. Peeks also noted that a liberal arts education taught her how to read and understand scientific publications and adapt to the nuances of this interdisciplinary research.

With studies now finalized, the next step for Wilson and Yang is programming the robots to recognize human eye patterns and body language to gauge when to offer assistance. They were both excited to use their experience with human subjects to better adapt robot helpers.

Yang spoke more about the personal impact that F&M had on her research: “I am just thankful that my education allowed me to have fun in this process.”


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