Published: Aug. 26, 2020 By

Cooper Steputis wears a functional near-infrared spectroscopy device that monitors his brain activity.

CU Boulder postdoctoral researcher Rosy Southwell and undergraduate student Cooper Steputis demonstrate the use of a functional near-infrared spectroscopy device, which can monitor brain activity. Such laboratory studies will complement efforts that a university research team is launching in Colorado classrooms. (Credit: Glenn Asakawa/CU Boulder)

Take a seat in the classroom of tomorrow—where intelligent computers work side-by-side with groups of students to support their engagement in meaningful and productive learning experiences designed by their teachers.

That’s the vision of a new $20 million research collaboration that will be led by the University of Colorado Boulder. The project is called the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) AI Institute for Student-AI Teaming. It will explore the role that artificial intelligence may play in the future of education and workforce development—especially in providing new learning opportunities for students from historically underrepresented populations in Colorado and beyond.

The NSF announced the effort alongside four other AI institutes at a virtual press conference Tuesday.

Sidney D’Mello, an associate professor in the Institute of Cognitive Science and the Department of Computer Science at CU Boulder,  will lead the new institute.

“We aim to advance a new science of teaming,” D’Mello said. “We have a lot of knowledge of what makes effective human-human teams. The next phase is understanding what underlies effective human-agent teams. In our case, that means students, AI and teachers working together.”

The 5-year project will bring 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. It will also tap researchers from across the CU Boulder campus, including the Institute of Cognitive Science, the College of Engineering and Applied Science (CEAS), College of Arts and Sciences and the School of Education.

“This center is a testament to the spirit of collaboration in our university’s DNA,” said Vice Chancellor for Research and Innovation Terri Fiez. “We are pleased that this effort will position researchers from across our campus to lead in unlocking the potential of AI with our partners from other universities, companies and our communities.”

A graphic showing how AI partners, such as an Alexa-like voice, and embodied virtual agent and a robot, could collaborate with teachers and students in a classroom.

The research team's vision for how AI "partners" (such as an Alexa-like voice, left, a virtual agent, middle, and a robot, right) can collaborate with teachers and students in classrooms. (Credit: NSF AI Institute for Student-AI Teaming)

AI partners

The problem, D’Mello said, is familiar to anyone who has set foot inside a modern-day classroom.

“Researchers and educators have talked about how important collaboration is to effective learning for a long time,” D’Mello said. “It’s just really hard to do that in a classroom because the teacher can’t be omnipresent.”

Sidney D'Mello stands in front of the Center for Innovation and Creativity building on the CU Boulder campus.Denver students experiment with new technology in the classroom

Top: Sidney D'Mello; bottom: Denver Public Schools students experiment with computer circuits as part of an opportunity organized by the SchoolWide Labs program at CU Boulder. (Credits: CU Boulder; SchoolWide Labs)

He and his colleagues think that AI “partners” could help to fill the gap in middle and high schools across the country. Imagine an intelligent agent that could follow what groups of students are talking about then ask questions or provide feedback to enhance their learning. At the same time, the agent works with teachers, helping them orchestrate more effective classroom interactions, such as by providing summaries of the small group discussions. 

To make such a reality happen, this new institute will focus on three main challenges: In the 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. Last, researchers will go to classrooms in Denver Public Schools and other school partners—virtually, during the age of COVID-19—to work hand-in-hand with students and teachers to think up new technologies. 

“Community members must be included from the very beginning when it comes to designing and developing technology that will be deployed in schools—this includes involving students, teachers, parents and other community leaders,” said Tamara Sumner, who is part of the new institute’s leadership team and the Director of ICS and professor of Computer Science.

“This center aligns with our vision of producing research that quickly translates into meaningful societal impact,” said Keith Molenaar, interim dean of CEAS. “This work will touch the lives of people in Colorado and around the globe. It is truly inspiring to consider the impacts and opportunities that this project will generate.”

Out in the community

Sumner and D'Mello, also members of the CEAS Engineering Education and AI-Augmented Learning interdisciplinary research theme, note that the project is based on an approach called “responsible innovation.” Many parents may be justifiably concerned about bringing AI agents into the classroom. But, she said, by collaborating with real-life learners and teachers, the institute will strive to design technologies that schools actually need.

The team will also work with its partner school districts to develop new curricula for middle and high school students preparing them to understand, critique and design new uses of AI. 

“Students need to understand how AI functions in the world now, including its potential role in building a ‘surveillance economy,’ and how it can help communities design together for a more just future,” said William Penuel, a member of the leadership team and professor in the School of Education at CU Boulder. “To do that, we are going to engage a diverse group of stakeholders from the community and from schools to help us set goals for co-designing curricula for middle and high school students."

The team hopes that this work will inspire a new generation of young people to get interested in AI and come up with new ways to use technology to help their own communities. 

And the project highlights the growing contribution of AI to the United States’ economy, dignitaries said at Tuesday's press conference.

“Just as prior NSF investments enabled the breakthroughs that have given rise to today’s AI revolution, the awards being announced today will drive discovery and innovation that will sustain American leadership and competitiveness in AI for decades to come,” said NSF Director Sethuraman Panchanathan.

Partners include Colorado State University, the University of California, Santa Cruz, UC Berkeley, Brandeis University, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, Georgia Institute of Technology, and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and University of Wisconsin-Madison. 

CU Boulder researchers involved in the effort include D’Mello, Sumner, Penuel, Martha Palmer,  Leanne Hirshfield, Peter Foltz, James Martin, Chenhao Tan, Katharina Kann, Ben Shapiro, Arturo Cortez, Kalonji Nzinga, Claire Monteleoni, Rafael Frongillo, Alessandro Roncone, Clayton Lewis, Lijun Chen, McKell Carston, Wayne Ward and Katherine Schultz.