EAGER: Collaborative Research: Virtual STEM Buddies for Personalized Learning Experiences in Free Choice Informal Learning Settings

PIs: Kyle Johnsen, University of Georgia Research Foundation (Award Details)
Karen Kelly, The Children’s Museum of Atlanta (Award Details)
Elizabeth DiSalvo, Georgia Tech Research Corporation (Award Details)

This project investigates how to provide customized instructional scaffolding to young kids to learn science in unstructured, out-of-school environments. The innovation is in using ‘virtual STEM buddies’ (VSBs), a computerized character that functions as both a mentor and a peer, and interacts with a child across exhibits within a children’s museum to help them learn about Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. Research will examine how to design and build such technologies, and how the ‘virtual buddy’ fits into other learning interactions (such as those between parent and child, or between museum guide and child).

The VSB, an intelligent embodied agent, will be built and pilot tested at the Children’s Museum of Atlanta, with engineering research focusing on how to ensure the agent can align with the learner’s knowledge and passions in what Crowley and Jacobs term ‘islands of expertise’. Key features will include assessment of and alignment to the youth’s prior knowledge; an interaction tailored to social construction of knowledge and continuity over time (so that the agent evolves with the child); and opportunistic instruction based on teachable moments both within and outside the museum. Engineering research will explore, in conjunction with participatory design, technologies for visitor identification (barcode, RFID, biometrics), user experience design to explore input methods in the noisy environment of a children’s museum, and mechanisms to handle ‘bottlenecking’ of visitors (i.e., to allow an acceptable multi-user experience if multiple children want to access the VSB technology at an exhibit). The learning research will focus on discourse of youth in the museum with adults and peers, and will be augmented with a brief post exhibit attitudinal survey based on the “Changes in Attitudes about the Relevance of Science” instrument.

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