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By Ron Scopelliti
Anna McCabe Elementary School students welcomed an unusual quintet of visitors on Tuesday, April 3, when Smithfield High School graduate Daniella DiPaola introduced grades 3 through 5 to four Jibo robots.
Jibo, the Boston company that Daniella has been involved with for three years, bills its namesake product as “the first social robot for the home” – a robot for consumers that provides companionship as well as assistance.
Daniella, who has worked full-time with Jibo for nearly two years, first got involved with the company while earning a BS in engineering psychology at Tufts University.
“From a pretty young age I was really interested in math and science,” she says, “and I knew I wanted to pursue that once I got to college.” Her primary interest was the way people interact with technology, and the engineering psychology program proved to be “the perfect blend” combining how technology is created with how people think, feel, and work with it.
She began working with Jibo as part of a capstone project at Tufts, and became a fulltime employee after graduating. The social robot seems to fit perfectly with the interests that led Daniella to her major.
“Jibo’s enabling us to interact with technology in a more personal way,” she says. “You feel like you’re talking to a ‘someone,’ rather than a ‘something.’” This is reflected in the way that, throughout her interview with The Smithfield Times, Daniella referred to Jibo as “he,” and never as “it.”
While Jibo can perform many of the same functions of devices like Amazon’s Echo and its Alexa app, Daniella says that he goes far beyond that. Though he is meant to live in a consumer’s home and help with daily tasks, Jibo’s role in the home is more like that of a companion than an appliance.
She explains: “He dances; he tells jokes; he’ll give you a fun fact every day. So he’s kind of a buddy in your home.”
Jibo’s cameras, voice recognition technology, and sensors give him an awareness of his environment, and allow him to react to it.
“So imagine you’re walking into your kitchen,” Daniella says. “Jibo recognizes your face, and then he’s able to proactively greet you, and maybe offer you a fun fact or the weather.”
In her position as a “user experience researcher” at Jibo, Daniella collects and analyzes a combination of qualitative and quantitative data, using methods that include interviews, observation, and surveys, to understand the relationship between users and their Jibos.
“For me,” she says, “I’m researching what it’s like to have robots in somebody’s home for 30 days. And this is the first time that anyone’s really ever studied that.”
While Jibo is currently considered a consumer product, Daniella says that he has been tested out in classrooms, and she visits schools regularly.
Her visit to McCabe came about after getting together for coffee with McCabe fifth-grade teacher Sandra Lenore and Smithfield High School Spanish teacher Lora Calise, both of whom she has remained in touch with since a Smithfield High trip to Spain during her senior year.
After a general presentation to the third, fourth, and fifth grade classes, Daniella gave fifth-graders a chance to interact more closely with Jibo, and share their thoughts on how Jibo could contribute to their lives both at home and at school.
“They had a lot of really good questions,” she says, “and they were brainstorming a lot of ideas about how they could see Jibo interacting in their household and their classroom.” These included having Jibo take attendance, aid teachers in instruction, act as a student’s partner in a project, and help with homework.
Daniella sees Jibo as a way to introduce math, science, and technology to students who may not be engaged by more traditional gateways into the subjects.
“Some pieces of educational technology are geared towards one type of person,” she says. She can see students being drawn by Jibo’s social interface to “create a play back and forth with Jibo, or create a stand-up comedy show with Jibo as a sidekick.”
“Being able to add Jibo into those contexts,” she says, “opens up coding and programming to a whole different type of person.”
While Daniella didn’t do any programming during her time in the Smithfield schools, she credits her experiences in high school with helping foster her interest in math and science.
“The high school’s science department was awesome, and they offered so many different classes,” she says. “All my science teachers were amazing.”
She also notes the influence that SHS math teacher Adelio Cabral had.
“I remember being really excited about math and science,” she says, “and Mr. Cabral kind of matched that enthusiasm.” She says the fact that he was so enthusiastic about the subjects, and so well-liked by other students helped her feel comfortable with her love of math and science.
She found that level of enthusiasm to be alive and well among her McCabe School audience, noting that after her presentation, there were 20 to 30 students lined up to ask questions.
“I thought that was awesome,” she says. “They seemed to be really engaged.”
Asked what advice she would offer to students who would like to follow in her footsteps, Danielle says she’s particularly interested in technologies that let children create and learn about math and science in the physical world around them.
“I would just say, ‘make stuff,’” she says, pointing to powerful-but-accessible creative resources like Roblox, Minecraft, and Scratch.
“I like things like Arduino kits, 3-D printing, and modeling,” she says. “LittleBits is a big one as well. And even Legos – Lego Mindstorms and NXTs are great.
“The more you make things, the more you learn, and the more you know what you like or don’t like.”