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Engineering professor creates animated science education program

Dec. 3, 2007, 9:30 AM

An animated computer program created by a Vanderbilt University professor of computer science and computer engineering is being used in Nashville public school classrooms to teach science to middle school students. But the teachable agent called Betty’s Brain does much more; it also teaches students how to learn.

Supported by the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Education, a research team headed by Gautam Biswas, working closely with collaborators at Stanford University, has shown that students learn science content much better by using Betty’s Brain. Studies being performed at Meigs Academic Magnet School in Nashville and at schools in the Palo Alto and Los Altos school districts in California show that the students also carry over that learning to new subjects, practice monitoring themselves along the way and have fun in the process.

Using a simplified visual representation called a concept map, fifth- and sixth-grade students teach a cartoon character named Betty about river ecosystem processes, such as the food chain, photosynthesis and the waste cycle. Then they test her to see if she has learned her lesson. Unless the students periodically check whether Betty understands the concepts and their relations, she will refuse to take the test. In checking her, the students are really checking themselves. They are also discovering that self-monitoring is an important learning strategy that applies to all learning situations.

“In order to teach, they first have to learn,” Biswas said. “What we are trying to animate is thought.”

At the bottom of the computer screen is an animated cartoon of Betty. A shared concept map, which represents what Betty and the student have learned, is in the middle of the screen. Using animation processes, Betty can illustrate how she reasons and answers questions with that information. (You can see photos of Betty and a student using the concept map by going to http://www.teachableagents.org/ and clicking on the first item under News.)

Betty’s Brain is being used by fifth-grade science teachers in their regular classroom activities. Although the concepts the program teaches are complex, “Using it is easy,” said sixth-grader Sam Beckham.

Teachable agents like Betty’s Brain not only facilitate student learning, they also make it enjoyable. “Students are much more motivated to monitor someone else,” Biswas said. “But in the process, they are actually monitoring themselves. It’s more entertaining for the students, and they feel a sense of responsibility. Because they are teaching her, they want her to do well.”

Biswas, whose field of expertise includes modeling and analysis of complex systems, describes himself as “an engineer or computer scientist who knows cognitive science.” He and his colleagues from the fields of cognitive science and science education are also developing software programs to teach reading to elementary school students and introductory computer science to college students.

For more information about Betty’s Brain, please go to http://www.teachableagents.org/.

Media Contacts: David F. Salisbury, (615) 322-NEWS
david.salisbury@vanderbilt.edu

Joanne Beckham, (615) 415-8171
Joanne.beckham@vanderbilt.edu

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