WPI Launches a New Graduate Program in Learning Sciences and Technologies

The First Such Program in New England, It Will Help Address a Pressing National Need for Enhanced K-12 STEM Education
December 16, 2010

Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) has launched a new graduate program in learning sciences and technologies. The program—the first of its kind in New England and one of fewer than 10 such programs in the nation—will prepare students to develop technological solutions to help meet a pressing national need for more effective K-12 education methods in the STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics).

Due to the comparatively poor performance of American students, globally, in the STEM subjects, schools are facing increasing pressure to find ways to use data and educational technology to improve student academic achievement. Accordingly, there is a growing need for professionals who understand how to develop powerful data mining and intelligent tutoring technologies that can assess the strengths and weaknesses of individual students, intervene to help students learn more effectively, and then track student progress and performance.

WPI's interdisciplinary learning sciences and technologies program, which will award Master of Science and PhD degrees, is offered by faculty members in the university's departments of Computer Science, Mathematical Sciences, and Social Science and Policy Studies under the joint direction of Neil Heffernan, associate professor of computer science, and Janice Gobert, associate professor of learning sciences and psychology. Participating faculty members have research expertise in artificial intelligence, cognitive psychology, human-computer interaction, and educational data mining.

"Today’s youth need strong math and science skills to compete successfully for good jobs—jobs that will assure them a high quality of life and allow them to make meaningful contributions to society," said WPI President Dennis Berkey. "That engagement begins in our elementary and middle schools where there is vast opportunity for improved teaching and learning of math and science. Our new learning sciences and technologies program focuses both on better understanding how students learn and on further developing techniques and technologies that are known to be effective, such as the ASSISTments software."

The Learning Sciences and Technologies Program is an outgrowth of research programs in intelligent tutoring systems and educational data mining that have been under way at WPI for nearly a decade. With more than $12 million in support from the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Department of Education, and other agencies, research teams in the mathematics and science ASSISTments programs (the name is a blend of tutoring "assistance" with student "assessments") are developing educational technology that can simultaneously help students learn and assess their progress. Used by over 100 teachers and 7,500 students in 25 school districts around New England, the web-based mathematics ASSISTments was cited in the National Educational Technology Plan recently released by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan (http://www.ed.gov/technology/netp-2010).

 "Our state-of-the art facilities and strong relationships with K-12 schools will provide our graduate students with the resources they need to perform innovative research at the highest level," said Heffernan. Added Gobert, "With our access to large populations of learners, our ability to track and auto-score fine-grained data on students' progress on the acquisition of knowledge and skills, and our pioneering approaches to data mining, we can offer graduate students the opportunity to do important and valuable work that can have a truly profound impact on the future of education. Our graduates will be able to take these assessment skills to classrooms and instructors around the nation as we focus on improving student engagement in the STEM disciplines."