Mt. Pleasant native creates robot which aids the autistic
With the Romibo Robot, Aubrey Shick's creativity and passion have yielded a product which will change the world for the better.
That's the perspective of Tess A. Lojacono, the founder, president and chief executive officer of Pittsburgh-based Fine Art Miracles Inc., regarding the robot invented by Shick, 29, a Mt. Pleasant Borough native and 2002 Mt. Pleasant Area graduate.
Romibo is being used by Lojacono's company — which serves the elderly and those with intellectual and developmental disabilities through fine art education — to educate children with autism.
“Aubrey Shick is a genius ... I really believe that,” said Lojacono in a plain-spoken, matter-of-fact tone.
“With the Romibo Robot, she has created a tool that will change the entire landscape of how we deal with autism in the home and in society,” she said.
Shick is the founder, president and chief executive officer of Origami Robotics based in Berkeley, Calif.
She developed Romibo to better reach children with autism and its symptoms, including an inhibition to human social idiosyncrasies, such as unpredictable changes in speaking tones and complex facial expressions.
“Robots have shown to be effective tools for motivation and education of individuals of all kinds,” Shick said. “Romibo is especially suited for teaching preschool concepts and exercising social and emotional behavior.”
Compared to its counterparts in the realm of social robotics, Romibo is a low-cost, customizable companion designed to assist in education and social therapy, she said.
In addition to those with autism, the device has proven beneficial to individuals with social and emotional disabilities, including those with traumatic injury or dementia, Shick said.
Device aids the autistic in learning
Round, squat and roughly two-feet-tall, with a fuzzy, brightly colored exterior and benign, oversimplified face, Romibo motors across the floors of Lojacono's classrooms at the prompting of an iPad, she said.
It instantly catches the eyes and attention of her students.
“We use it as a teaching tool; the robot says good morning to each child,” said Lojacono, whose company serves about 100 nursing homes and 33 community service organizations and child education facilities combined in the Pittsburgh area.
“We feel they learn better from the robot than humans. We're programming it to enhance all learning — literacy, math and language,” she said.
And the result?
“Whatever it is we're teaching with Romibo, these children are learning without even realizing how well they are learning,” Lojacono said. “We see this robot changing kids' attitudes from ‘I can't' to ‘I can,' and we therefore see the playing field leveled for all these kids when we eliminate that fear of failure.
“This is a real game-changer.”
Creative roots run deep
During her days as a Mt. Pleasant Area student, Shick honed her artistic and creative skills by devising various items, which often carried unique messages and meanings.
On lunch breaks and over study periods, Shick often spent extra time working with Dalene Wilkins, a district art instructor, on projects Wilkins devised to challenge Shick's inventive capabilities.
“(Wilkins) pushed me to develop my skills further, and she made me more interested in developing things and creating work that had meaning to people,” Shick said.
One of Shick's efforts — a drawing titled “Pennsylvania Volunteer” which depicts the fireman's boot, heavy coat and helmet of Jerry Lucia, chief of the borough's volunteer fire department — made her a finalist for a Congressional High School Art Competition.
Details of Shick's recognition, along with her photo, appear in the 2003 publication “From Helltown To Hometown — Celebrating Mt. Pleasant's 175th Anniversary.”
Such exhibits helped lead to Shick's acceptance into the Pennsylvania Governor's School, a government-funded program in which she was introduced to the field of industrial design and product development.
Career path takes shape in college
Upon earning a degree in industrial design from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh in 2006, Shick was accepted to the Human-Computer Interaction Institute, part of the university's School of Computer Science.
In 2010, Shick earned a master's degree in human-computer interaction.
“Pretty much all of my work has been in assistive technology and developing tangible products that help people live better lives,” she said.
As part of her graduate studies, Shick created the precursor to Romibo, a robot she named Memote via a $10,000 in grant funding she applied for and received.
That work contributed largely to her eventual hire at that university's Robotics Institute, where she continued to develop what eventually became Romibo before she established Origami Robotics in 2011.
Investors are sought for Romibo the Robot
Beginning in July, Shick and her staff will pursue investors to enable the wider manufacture and distribution of Romibo through online, crowd sourcing resources.
“We want to produce 5,000 robots in our first run; we're raising the money right now and we've been filming a promotional video for it,” said Shick, whose efforts recently received attention from the Pittsburgh division of National Public Radio.
Currently, at least 30 Romibo Robots, all built by hand, are in use at institutions and companies in the United States, as well as in Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Romania and Spain.
Mother to utilize robot to teach
This summer, Shick's mother, Mary Lou Shick, director of the Mt. Pleasant Public Library, will employ another model of robot produced by her daughter's company to aid in teaching participants of the facility's annual reading program.
“I am incredibly proud of my daughter Aubrey for designing what she hopes will become an effective and affordable tool for educators, parents, therapists and students,” she said.
When Mary Lou Shick was pursuing a degree in art therapy and psychology at Seton Hill University in Greensburg, her daughter took an interest in her studies and attended lectures with her, she said.
“The majors I studied had an influence. Aubrey has always pushed her boundaries,” her mother said. “She set her sights on attending CMU and traveling the world and she accomplished these things. She has been to many countries, lived and worked abroad, and she has visited six of the seven continents.”
Success story carries a lesson
Growing up in Mt. Pleasant, Aubrey Shick did not travel much.
Most days, she spent much of her time working after-school jobs through high school at the now-defunct Cook's Build-It Lumber & Home Center, as well as at the library.
“I'd never even been to New York City until I'd gotten to college,” Shick said.
She never stopped “dreaming big dreams” as both a person and as a professional, a practice she encouraged current Mt. Pleasant Area students to consider, she said.
“I always want to convey that you can go on to accomplish big things, even though you are from a small town,” Shick said.
A.J. Panian is an editor for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-547-5722 or firstname.lastname@example.org.