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NSF Funds Math Tutoring Software Commercialization

MathSpring tutoring characters

Animated characters used in MathSpring tutoring software (University of Massachusetts, Amherst)

18 August 2015. Software to help primary and secondary school students learn mathematics is receiving financial support from National Science Foundation to bring the software to market. NSF awarded a grant of nearly $200,000 to Beverly Woolf, a computer scientist at University of Massachusetts in Amherst, for the 18-month project.

Woolf is developer of the program MathSpring, a tutorial software package that assesses and instructs in mathematics, but also takes into account students’ cognitive and emotional needs. Most other tutorial software emulates classroom teaching with primarily drill and practice problems.

MathSpring uses artificial intelligence to evaluate and build math skills of students in grades 5 through 10. The software in real time can adjust its responses to provide a customized intervention to improve math skills, but also offer techniques for handling difficult problems, including friendly animated characters speaking one-on-one to encourage perseverance and effort. An evaluation of earlier versions of MathSpring showed the software can raise standardized test scores by an average of 10 percent.

“Our MathSpring project addresses the high failure rate of K-12 students to learn mathematics,” says Woolf in a university statement. “It applies theoretical understanding of the individual student’s knowledge and mood, which helps to guide each tutor response. These interactions are designed to move students away from boredom or disengagement, and will have the capability to select from as many as 700 problems in the system.”

The NSF grant supports Woolf’s UMass lab as well as research colleague Ivon Aroyo at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. The work includes tailoring the software for Android and Apple-iOS platforms. The funding also underwrites the work of CarneyLabs, a technology commercialization company in Alexandria, Virginia. Paul Jesukiewicz, a vice-president at CarneyLabs, is co-investigator on the project with Woolf and Aroyo.

Virginia Advanced Studies Strategies, a not-for-profit organization in South Boston, Virginia, will provide the testing environment for the project. The educational development organization works with the Virginia Department of Education.

In June 2013, Woolf was named a Presidential Innovation Fellow in recognition of her work for designing effective mathematics tutoring software that combines artificial intelligence with network and multimedia technologies. The Presidential Innovation Fellow program matches academic and private-sector scientists with top civil servants on assignments lasting up to one year to address high-priority policy needs.

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