Sep. 5, 2013 Researchers from Leeds and Bradford are working with colleagues from the United States to develop an exciting new robotic device that helps children to practice and improve their manual (hand) coordination.
The findings of a pilot study are being presented today at the British Psychological Society's Annual Conference in Reading, detailing the first time this innovative new technology has been trialled in a UK school.
The collaboration involves Professor Mark Mon-Williams, Dr. Liam Hill from the University of Leeds, Katy Shires from the Bradford Institute of Health Research and Professor Geoffrey Bingham's lab from the University of Indiana (USA). This team has been working on creating a haptic robotic training system that gives children feedback and scaffolds their performance as they practice hand and wrist movements commonly made during handwriting and other manual tasks.
The device has already been tested in a study in the United States, results showing that the increased feedback it provides particularly aids children who have underlying movement problems, providing them with the extra support they need whilst trying to learn everyday tasks they typically have great difficulty with (e.g. handwriting, using cutlery and dressing themselves).
How does it work?
A child holds a pen connected to the cradle of a small robotic arm. They then move the pen around in order to play 'computer games' presented on the screen of the computer. The games the children play require them to practice hand and wrist movements commonly made during handwriting (and other manual tasks). As the child plays the games the robot's arm (purple arrow) helps them learn the correct movements by pushing and pulling the pen in the direction required to make the right moves. The strength to which the arm pushes/pulls towards the correct movement can be varied so that as the child becomes more confident the arm can reduce its level of support, allowing the child to increasingly do the task on their own.
What are we doing?
Recently we have just completed the first UK pilot study using this robotic device, demonstrating its feasibility for use (i) in the classroom and (ii) with children of a younger age than previously studied. Working with a small number of five to seven year old children in a primary school in Bradford, who had a wide range of manual abilities, we investigated their level of motivation and enjoyment whilst practicing for 20 minutes on a variety of robotic arm tasks presented previously in US-based studies using the system. We also trialed simpler versions of these tasks, which were expected to be more age appropriate for the younger children we were working with.
All the children found the tasks highly enjoyable and were able to perform them to an acceptable level. Differences in performance between children previously identified by their classroom teachers as having handwriting difficulties were also noticeable (e.g. taking longer to complete, making more errors if the level of support the robotic arm provided was reduced). Plans are now underway to run a larger intervention study within schools in Bradford that will formally investigate whether the findings from the US can be replicated in younger school children here in the UK (i.e. will the system help them improve their handwriting and manual-dexterity development?).
Dr Hill said: "In trying to support a child with handwriting and coordination difficulties one of the major challenges teachers and occupational therapists come up against time and again is the limited time they have to work one-to-one with each child. In this respect haptic robotic technologies have huge potential efficiency benefits. They provide a means by which children can receive supported practice, at a level which adjusts to their growing abilities, without the need for one-to-one interaction with a therapist. Banks of these systems could be used simultaneously by multiple children in a clinic or in the classroom setting, under the supervision of a single overseeing professional."
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