UMass Amherst Computer Scientists Design Virtual Tutors for Learning Mathematics

March 8th, 2012
A team of University of Massachusetts Amherst computer scientists led by Beverly Woolf and Ivon Arroyo recently won one of four $1.5 million awards from the Office of Naval Research (ONR) to develop digital tutoring software for teaching mathematics according to individual students’ needs. One long-term goal is to reduce training time and instructor costs while improving the technical skills of sailors and Marines.

Woolf, Arroyo and others at UMass Amherst have been working for several years to create intelligent and emotionally perceptive mathematics tutoring software called Wayang Outpost for grade school children. It features a friendly tutor and other animated characters who interact one-to-one with youngsters like a personal teacher. It uses artificial intelligence to evaluate their skills and knowledge in real time, then adjusts to offer each student personalized strategies to address his or knowledge gaps and provide advice for tackling problems that challenge them.

For this Navy research, the UMass team will partner with faculty from Worcester Polytechnic Institute to integrate its mathematics tutor, ASSISTments, with Wayang. High school students at Thornton Academy in Maine will use the new system, helping researchers understand how to improve the design of future versions.

In the first part of the two-phase ONR project, teams receive up to $1.5 million to develop digital tutors to provide instruction in science and engineering topics. Woolf says the approaches include developing techniques for creating realistic and supportive curriculum, plus techniques for maintaining students’ active engagement. In addition to UMass Amherst, Arizona State University, the University of Memphis and Raytheon BBN Technologies each received similar awards in the $8 million ONR program.

At the end of the first phase, the four teams will be judged on how well the virtual tutors improved students’ knowledge retention, reasoning and problem-solving skills. One or two teams will be selected to move on to the second phase that adds another year of funding, up to $1 million per team, to produce a system that can be used to educate sailors and Marines. This phase is intended to translate the best digital tutoring systems for use in Navy schools and laptop computers.

Developed by Woolf, Arroyo and colleagues over the past decade, Wayang Outpost has improved student performance on standardized test scores by an average of 10 percent, a critical difference for low-achieving and special needs students who often struggle to pass their math classes. The software has been used by thousands of students worldwide and improves students’ relationship with mathematics early, which can be important to later career choices.

Overall, the $8 million ONR program is intended to spur innovation and creativity in designing cost-effective digital tutors that tailor instruction to the individual needs and learning pace of students, perhaps improving student academic performance by two or more letter grades in a short time. It can take experts as many as 200 hours to develop an hour’s worth of instructional content in today’s digital tutors, according to an ONR analysis, so a key objective is to develop tools that make designing instructional content faster and more effective.

Rear Adm. Matthew L. Klunder, chief of naval research, said, "I look to these teams of researchers and their unique approaches with intelligent tutoring systems to help the Navy, Marine Corps and our nation in delivering a steady work force of talented scientists and engineers." He said the Department of the Navy is committed to doubling its investment in science, technology, engineering and mathematics education over the next five years.

Provided by University of Massachusetts Amherst

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