THEY can do the Macarena, speak foreign languages, sing and play games, but these disarmingly humanoid robots are not mere toys — they could inspire the next generation of computer programmers and help autistic children learn vital social skills.

The Association of Independent Schools of SA has bought two French NAO (pronounced “now”) robots, dubbed Thomas and P!nk, for $12,000 each.

St Peter’s College, Vineyard Lutheran School and St John’s Grammar School are the first of about 20 schools that will trial the robots in a three-year study into their educational benefits involving three interstate universities.

Murray Bridge High School has also bought a NAO which it plans to use in its disability unit.

Monica Williams, the independent school association’s digital learning expert, said the robots had various educational purposes ranging from basic games for preschoolers to conversing with foreign language learners and advanced programming for upper high school students.

Ms Williams said it was increasingly important children learned programming and the robots were an engaging way of teaching it, as their movements gave instant feedback as to whether students’ coding had worked the way they intended.

Used in RoboCup international soccer tournaments, NAOS were developed by Paris-based Aldebaran Robotics, the worldwide leader in humanoid robotics that is also working on companion robots and adult-sized assistance robots for the elderly.

Vineyard Lutheran School learning co-ordinator Stephanie Kriewaldt said independent schools would lead a second study using software that turned aids for autistic students to practise social skills, such as friendly greetings. The robots also helped calm students having “meltdowns”, she said.

St John’s Grammar School head of IT Riccardo Rosadoni said middle school students would program the NAOS for a Robots Got Talent showcase.

St Peter’s College head of technology Nick Lamont said NAOS were great language learning aids because “the pronunciation must be spot on for the robot to understand”.

Murray Bridge High disability unit manager Dr Christine Roberts-Yates said the school had bought a NAO after success with a Japanese therapeutic baby seal robot called Paro.

Independent schools association chief executive Carolyn Grantskalns said schools would investigate how Thomas and P!nk fostered “essential skills” such as critical, creative and computational thinking and collaborative problem solving.

St Peter’s Year 9 student Tom Grozev, 14, said he was “looking forward to making them do the Macarena and the chicken dance.”

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