Promoting Complex Learning in STEM Domains

HapTutor-Lab: Promoting Complex Learning in STEM Domains through Intelligent Tutors and Haptic Feedback

A quality education is the foundation to improving people’s lives and sustainable development (UN, 2017).  Yet lifelong learning remains an elusive goal hampered by spatial and physical limitations.  Future technologies hold the promise to achieve this goal by enabling the creation of virtual spaces in which learners can be immersed together and nurtured into learning by feeling and experiencing in a supportive social climate. These spaces, experienced through wearable technology such as glasses, haptics, and sensors, could mold themselves into authentic environments in which to observe, feel, simulate, and experiment under the guidance of a personal skilled tutor. This vision is our motivation toward the creation of inclusive and personalized adaptive learning environments at a scale.

There has been a breakthrough in recent years concerning artificial talking head agents that can have a conversation with the human learning in natural language in the form of intelligent tutoring systems. In another line of development, haptic simulations now allow the human learner to use a controlling device to touch and feel force feedback to help students solve physics problems. Alejandra Magana, associate professor of computer information technology, and her post-doctoral associate, Shi Feng, are leading a project to integrate two lines of research—haptic technologies for learning difficult concepts in STEM and the intelligent tutoring system AutoTutor. “Dr. Feng recently joined our lab bringing with hear a wealth of knowledge in the space of intelligent tutoring systems” Dr. Alejandra Magana said. “She is also bringing her network of collaborators from the University of Memphis, an institution with leading researchers in the area of Intelligent Tutoring Systems.”

Joining the project are Professor Arthur C. Graesser from the Institute for Intelligent Systems at the University of Memphis, who was recently awarded the prestigious Harold W. McGraw, Jr. Prize of lifetime achievement in education. Dr. Graesser is a leading field in developing various intelligent tutoring systems; the most notable one being AutoTutor, an intelligent tutoring system that holds a three-way conversation between a teacher agent, a peer agent, and the human learner. In addition, Zhiqiang Cai, a research assistant professor at the University of Memphis who programmed AutoTutor, has been more than excited to collaborate with the Purdue Polytechnic Institute for integrating haptics into AutoTutor. “AutoTutor has been our baby,” Professor Zhiqiang Cai said. “We are very honored that such a prestigious institution, Purdue, is using our system and making something new out of it. We want as many people to try it as it is possible so we can make it better and better!”

Currently the project is in development headed by Shi Feng, who has had five years of experience designing and programming curriculums for AutoTutor.  “The challenge is always how to design the production rules and sync the speeches with the media which would need to be programmed separately.” Shi Feng said. “The complexity will be on multiple levels—the designing of the speech progressions, the storing of the data in natural language, the animation of the media, not to mention syncing all of it with the haptics technology.”

The project, if successful, can potential help thousands of students to make learning not only fun but also challenging in the optimal zone of proximal development. Also joining the project are Professor Bedrich Benes from Computer Graphics, Professor Sanjay Rebello from Physics and Astronomy and Dr. Ida Ngambeki from Computer and Information Technology.

team photo: HapTutor-Lab: Promoting Complex Learning in STEM Domains through Intelligent Tutors and Haptic Feedback