UCSC partners in institute to explore the role of AI in education

The NSF AI Institute for Student-AI Teaming envisions intelligent computers in classrooms working side-by-side with groups of students

Marilyn Walker
Marilyn Walker (Photo by C. Lagattuta)
Jeffrey Flanigan
Jeffrey Flanigan
Computer scientists in the Baskin School of Engineering at UC Santa Cruz are partners in a new institute to explore the role that artificial intelligence (AI) may play in the future of education and workforce development.

Funded by a $20 million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF), the NSF AI Institute for Student-AI Teaming will work to develop groundbreaking AI that helps both students and teachers to work and learn together more effectively, and equitably, while helping educators focus on what they do best: inspiring and teaching students.

Led by the University of Colorado Boulder, the institute brings together a team of researchers from nine universities from across the country in a close collaboration with two public school districts, private companies, and community leaders.

The vision is to develop engaging “AI partners,” intelligent computers that can work side-by-side with groups of students to support their engagement in meaningful and productive learning experiences designed by their teachers.

The UCSC team, led by Professor Marilyn Walker and Assistant Professor Jeffrey Flanigan in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering, will be focused on the development of the conversational AI Partner intended to facilitate productive collaborative learning discussions between students in small groups.

“Our goal is to build an intelligent agent that can participate collaboratively as an equal partner in a student team discussion, knowing when to ask questions, when to provide feedback, and when to provide insights to enhance students’ learning. Exactly how to do this is the interesting scientific question we aim to answer,” explained Walker, who directs UCSC’s graduate program in Natural Language Processing.

Flanigan is also an expert in natural language processing, which focuses on the development of computer programs that can understand, generate, and learn from human language. “The UCSC team will develop new algorithms for deep semantic language understanding that are needed to take conversational agents to the next level,” he said.

Over the course of the project, the AI Partner will evolve from a simple voice software agent to a fully embodied situated dialogue agent. Ultimately, the institute aims to develop AI partners that can observe, participate in, and facilitate collaborative STEM learning conversations by interacting naturally through speech, gesture, gaze, and facial expression in real-world classrooms and remote learning settings.

The institute’s research efforts will focus on three main challenges. First, researchers will work to develop new advances in the fundamental science of how machines process human language, gestures, and emotions. Next, the team will strive to better understand how students, AI, and teachers can collaborate effectively in both classrooms and remote learning contexts. Finally, researchers will go to classrooms in Denver Public Schools and other school partners—virtually, during the age of COVID-19—and work hand-in-hand with students and teachers to think up new technologies.

The UCSC team will be responsible for research and development of new methods in the areas of dialogue management and natural language understanding and generation for multi-party conversation in the context of small-group collaborative learning. To enable this work, they will help design classroom experiments to collect data and participate in data analysis, as well as annotation and preparation of the data for use in training models for the AI Partner.

In addition to UC Santa Cruz, partners in the institute include UC Berkeley, Colorado State University, Brandeis University, Worcester Polytechnic University, Georgia Institute of Technology, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and University of Wisconsin-Madison.

The NSF AI Institute for Student-AI Teaming is one of five new NSF institutes to advance artificial intelligence research, announced together with two new AI institutes funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. These institutes will leverage AI techniques to address pressing issues such as extreme weather preparedness, bioengineering technology, navigation, education, and robust food systems.