Massachusetts Association of School Committees Honors Intelligent Tutoring System Developed at WPI

WPI Professors Neil Heffernan and Cristina Heffernan to Receive the MASC Community Leader Award at Worcester School Committee Meeting on Feb. 26
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February 23, 2009

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WORCESTER, Mass. – Feb. 23, 2009 – Two Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) professors who were instrumental in the development of a sophisticated intelligent tutoring system that has been adopted for use throughout seventh and eighth grade algebra classes in the Worcester Public School System as well as in schools in Fitchburg, Leicester, and Shrewsbury, Mass., have been chosen to receive the Community Leader for Public Education Award from the Massachusetts Association of School Committees.

The award will be presented to Neil Heffernan, associate professor of computer science, and his wife, Cristina Lindquist Heffernan, adjunct instructor of mathematics, at 7 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 26, during a meeting of the Worcester School Committee. Worcester mayor and School Committee member Konstantina Lukes will make the presentation.

Over the past five years, Neil Heffernan has led a research team at WPI that has developed a Web-based intelligent tutoring system called ASSISTments, an unparalleled tool for educating students and tracking their progress. To date, development of the system has been supported by more than $9 million in funding from the National Science Foundation, the Department of Education, and other federal and state agencies. Cristina Heffernan, a longtime algebra teacher, has served as a content specialist for the research project from the beginning. (Earlier, her classroom teaching was the model for “Ms. Lindquist,” an algebra tutor her husband developed while a graduate student at Carnegie Mellon University.)

“Since coming to Worcester in 2002, the Heffernans have generously dedicated their time, talent, and boundless energy to bringing ASSISTments, an online math tutoring system, to Worcester middle- and high school students and their teachers,” the award citation reads. “This program is a magnificent tool that is distinguished by, among other facets, its clarity and ease of access and use.”

ASSISTments helps students learn mathematics by presenting them with problems and then offering carefully structured assistance if they encounter problems solving them. By recording students’ attempts to answer questions and the help they request, the system also assesses which concepts they have mastered and which they still need to work on. ASSISTments provides teachers—and parents—immediate, day-to-day feedback on students’ progress, making it easier to offer individualized instruction to help students master concepts they may be struggling with. It also provides principals with real-time data on what is happening in math classrooms, and school systems with the long-term data on student performance they must report under the federal No Child Left Behind Act. In fact, ASSISTments is the only system that can provide longitudinal data and a benchmark assessment of student skills without taking time out from classroom instruction, Heffernan says.

Teachers and administrators in the Worcester Public Schools have been instrumental in the development of ASSISTments, helping the researchers understand how they help students think through problems, assisting in the development of math problems, and pilot testing and critiquing the system. The system is now used in seventh and eighth grade math class throughout the Worcester Public School System, as well in several other schools in Massachusetts. With funding from the National Science Foundation, the ASSISTments team has begun sending WPI graduate students into Worcester classrooms as teaching fellows. They partner with experienced teachers in science, mathematics, engineering, and technology with the goal of developing stronger teaching skills and conducting research that will further strengthen the ASSISTments tutorial system.

Two additional grants from the NSF totaling more than $2.5 million are funding work led by Janice Gobert, associate professor of social science and policy studies, and Neil Heffernan to extend ASSISTments into middle school science instruction. Science ASSISTments will help middle school students develop a deeper understanding of concepts in the physical, Earth, and life sciences by teaching them to think like scientists. It will use computer simulations of scientific experiments and a sophisticated logging system for systematically tracking how students tackle experiments to both guide students' learning and assess their progress. The project, which is aligned with the content and skills standards set forth by the Massachusetts Curricular Frameworks, is being developed in close cooperation with the Worcester Public Schools.