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A social robot named Zenbo has been using updated versions of classic fairy tales to teach fifth graders in Delaware how to be safe online.

Zenbo was activated at the University of Delaware’s Newark campus during a special lesson laid on by university researchers for a group of students from The College School. 

The two-foot-tall interactive robot was programmed with a number of familiar children’s stories, which had been subtly adapted to promote security in the digital age. For example, in Zenbo’s version of Little Red Riding Hood, entry to grandma’s house is password protected and Red is warned by her mother not to reveal the password to anyone.

When Red encounters a cyber-savvy Big Bad Wolf in the woods, the little girl must grapple with the dilemma of whether she should keep the password a secret or share the private information with a predatory stranger.

Students are asked by the robot what Red should do next. A class confronted with the problem by Zenbo last Tuesday was split down the middle, with half deeming it okay to trust the wolf with the password and the other half believing that to do so would be risky.

“These checkpoints reinforce positive behaviors and create teachable moments for when children make mistakes,” said Chrystalla Mouza, distinguished professor in teacher education in the University of Delaware’s College of Education and Human Development (CEHD). 

“It’s important that this training is provided in school because we cannot rely on it being provided elsewhere.” 

Zenbo’s cybersecurity classroom career is a collaboration between Mouza; professor of computer and information sciences in the College of Engineering Chien-Chung Shen; and Tia Barnes, CEHD assistant professor of human development.

When working to establish an academic minor and a master’s cybersecurity program at the university, Shen observed that children from kindergarten age up to 12th grade were being overlooked when it came to cyber-safety instruction. 

“We envision this social robot being one part of the teacher’s strategy and lesson plan, perhaps as a station that students visit or an activity that they complete during class to generate discussion,” said Mouza.

The project may be expanded in the future to include virtual reality (VR) that would enable children to become characters within the stories and learn through role play.

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