Aerospace engineer to explore impact of social robots on students in higher ed

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Recent research has demonstrated that robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) are poised to redefine higher education. How much these social robotics could positively contribute to the social development of students and how they could be used to support academic integrity decision making by students is something Alan Wagner, assistant professor of aerospace engineering, is aiming to find out.

Currently, industries are developing around the use of AI agents as aids for selecting and scheduling classes, and robots are being introduced into educational environments, primarily as research and/or teaching platforms. Also common among higher institutions are robotics clubs that focus on the building and programming of these systems within a competitive setting.

However, little attention has been paid to how the use of a robot or interaction with an AI system as part of students’ standard educational experiences will impact or influence them.

Through a recently awarded fellowship from Penn State Teaching and Learning with Technology (TLT), Wagner will develop an experimental framework, using immersive social spaces, to investigate how social, artificially intelligent robots in higher education can foster and enforce ethical behavior and academic integrity with students. He will also seek to understand what the long-term ramifications of these systems are on students.

“Contemporary robots are very limited; they cannot do many of the things that most people take for granted,” said Wagner. “They have no common sense, previous experience or understanding of social norms without being explicitly programmed with this information. For these reasons, the use of social robots demands simplistic, well-structured and controlled situations.”

Wagner, who is currently developing methods that will allow nontechnical people, such as students, to work and interact with a robot, will develop a series of software programs and algorithms that will allow a robot to play different interactive games — such as Connect 4, Uno and Checkers, that have pre-determined, well-defined rules — with a person.

Previous research has explored methods that allow these systems to win games; however, the purpose of Wagner’s research is not to create the best game-playing robot, but rather develop social robots that can learn from a person, ask that person questions about how to play the game, and incorporate the provided answers into actionable knowledge about the game.

“My goal is to develop robots that teach students how to play games with empathy, integrity and social awareness,” said Wagner. “For example, we might generate situations in which the robot demonstrates sadness because it has lost several games in a row and then present the student with opportunities to allow the robot to win, or generate situations in which the student or the robot can bend or break the rules to gain an advantage but choose not to in order to play with integrity. Our hope is that these systems might be capable of generating ‘ethical nudges,’ which encourage ethical behavior or, perhaps, cause the students to reflect on the ethical implications of their actions.”

The creation of such a system could eventually transform education, helping to encourage students to reflect on their own ethical decision making within the classroom and choose to behave differently. Ideally, robotic systems might serve to train and reinforce important social skills and encourage students to be polite, respectful or even just.

“Studies show that more than 30 percent of students attempt to use unpermitted resources when taking a test, and online education may have exacerbated this trend,” said Wagner. “Moreover, as noted by the Chronicle of Higher Education, online services now offer to complete a student’s academic work for them. It would be helpful if technology could be used to support positive academic-integrity decision making by students.”

TLT works to help guide the University in the appropriate use of technology to enrich teaching and learning. The mission of the organization is to help Penn State instructors take advantage of information technology to enrich the educational experience of their students.

The objectives of TLT Fellows are to work collaboratively to identify emerging questions in the field of teaching learning with technology; to create and grow communities to explore topics to inform new practice; to support directed research and development; and to create opportunities to develop long-term relationships.

Wagner’s project, titled “Using Social Robots to Create Immersive Social Spaces,” will be funded for one year. Research on the project will be conducted in the Robot Ethics and Aerial Vehicles Laboratory. Insights gained from Wagner’s experiments may first be applied to the Aerospace 424 course, Advanced Computer Programming, with the hope of further application across a much broader range of engineering courses at Penn State.

Leading the project from the TLT side will be Kathy Jackson, faculty programs researcher.

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Last Updated August 02, 2018