Puyallup Herald

Can robots reduce teen stress? These students are on a quest to find out

Teens create social robots meant to reduce student stress

Two high school students at Chief Leschi Schools in Puyallup created social robot prototypes meant to reduce stress among their peers as part of a project with the University of Washington.
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Two high school students at Chief Leschi Schools in Puyallup created social robot prototypes meant to reduce stress among their peers as part of a project with the University of Washington.

The name of Damien Roy’s social robot is Bob.

While the name is simple, the concept is a bit more complicated.

Bob is a prototype Ecological Momentary Assessment Robot (EMAR), or a user-friendly robot that is meant to measure and collect teen mental health data in a public high school setting.

Roy, a 10th-grader at Chief Leschi Schools in Puyallup, designed and created the robot after a counselor suggested he’d be interested in the EMAR project.

“It was like, yeah, I get to help out kids with stress (and) I like creating,” he said.

The University of Washington in Seattle and Tacoma partnered with local high schools this year for the Social Robot Design Challenge for Project EMAR. Chief Leschi was the only school district in Puyallup involved with the project.

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Chief Leschi 10th grader Damien Roy (left) and ninth grader Salacia Stanley (right) were both involved with the EMAR project with the University of Washington to create a social robot. Allison Needles allison.needles@puyallupherald.com

According to researchers at UW, teens “suffer more stress than any other age group and are more negatively impacted by it in terms of mental health, physical health and suicidal ideation.” The project is meant to address the issue.

“The main goal of the project is to better understand teen stress through the use of a social robot that would live in their high school,” said Emma Rose, co-principal investigator on the project and an assistant professor in UW Tacoma’s School of Interdisciplinary Arts & Sciences.

But the project is two-fold — not only does it address the issue of student stress, it also engages students in science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM fields.

For Roy, mechanics and engineering are part of his interests.

“When my little siblings would break their toys, I would fix them,” he said.

Salacia Stanley, a Chief Leschi ninth-grader also involved with the project, wants to be a designer.

Roy and Stanley began their social robot experiment with a little research. With help from counselor La’Ghea Jackson and STEM coach Mimi Lampert, they polled other students about what stressors they experience and what relaxes them.

School, family and relationships were common stressors, they found. While eating, talking to friends and listening to music relieved stress.

With that in mind, the two students set out to build their robots.

Roy’s social robot, Bob, is mostly made out of a remote control car, a basket and a cardboard box. It has LED tealight candles attached its back and has a face reminiscent of Baymax, a friendly robot from the movie, "Big Hero 6." But there’s more Roy imagines Bob could do, if given the resources. In a perfect world, Bob would talk, play music and hold stress balls and food.

“(Bob) goes up to people and says, ‘Hello,” and ‘How was your day?’” Roy said. “This is just a prototype of what I think it would be.”

Ninth-grader Salacia Stanley took a more tactile approach to her robot. Built like an animal, Stanley’s social robot is meant to resemble a cat and has fur and a tail. She named it Kenny 2.0, after her real-life cat Kenny.

“I wanted to put fur on it because if kids were really stressed out they could pet it if they wanted to, or if there are some kids who are stressed out but allergic (to animals),” she said. “(Petting animals) helps release some kind of brain chemical that helps relieve stress.”

Christina Nelson, a UW Tacoma student and Puyallup resident, helped the students design their social robots.

“It’s a really powerful thing to integrate into schools, to give them another career option,” Nelson said. “My favorite is always seeing how the kids envision their designs, and then seeing them come to life.”

After constructing their social robots, Roy and Stanley tested them out in a classroom. At first sight, the students smiled or laughed at the robots. Some students suggested other features that might help.

The EMAR project was recently awarded a $1.1 million grant from the National Science Foundation. The Design Challenge was the first part of a three-year plan to develop EMAR. Next year, researchers plan to work with two schools to “develop educational activities around robot interactions. Finally, in the third year, the researchers will send a fully autonomous EMAR to a high school for field testing and to explore the social impact of a social robot in a school setting.”

The team of researchers includes Elin Björling from Human-Centered Design and Engineering at UW Seattle, Maya Cakmak from Computer Science and Engineering at UW Seattle, and Emma Rose from Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences at UW Tacoma.

Allison Needles: 253-597-8507, @herald_allison
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