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Contact: Peter Vietti
Office of Naval Research

STEM Grand Challenge winners to build better digital tutors for students

4 academic and industry teams will develop affordable software to improve middle and secondary students' science, technology, engineering and math knowledge

ARLINGTON, Va.— The Office of Naval Research (ONR) today announced the selection of four academic and industry teams to develop affordable digital tutoring software to improve the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) knowledge of middle and high school students.

Winners of ONR's STEM Grand Challenge, the teams will produce intelligent tutoring technology that ultimately will be used to enhance the STEM skills of students, Sailors and Marines while helping to prepare the future naval science and engineering work force to address emerging challenges to the nation's defense.

"I look to these teams of researchers and their unique approaches with intelligent tutoring systems to help the Navy, Marine Corps and our nation in delivering a steady work force of talented scientists and engineers," said Rear Adm. Matthew L. Klunder, chief of naval research.

The Department of the Navy (DoN) is committed to doubling its investment in STEM in the next five years. Last year, Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus initiated a STEM Roadmap to help guide the department in its commitment to help improve the nation's STEM education this decade.

"Secretary Mabus inspired our early grass root efforts and now ONR, government labs and warfare centers as well as initiatives coming out of the president's office are taking hold and really starting to energize young people to pursue STEM education and careers," said Klunder.

ONR's STEM education Grand Challenge, an $8 million three-year initiative, is designed to spur innovation and creativity in the advancement of cost-effective digital tutors that tailor instruction to the individual needs and learning pace of students. The software systems mimic one-on-one interactions between teachers and pupils and are expected to improve student academic performance by two or more letter grades in a short amount of time.

The selection of the four teams was based on the scientific and technical merits of their proposals in addressing ONR's STEM Grand Challenge research goals. The winning proposals were submitted by:

  1. University of Memphis
  2. Arizona State University
  3. University of Massachusetts
  4. Raytheon BBN Technologies

In the first phase, each team will receive up to $1.5 million to develop a digital tutor that will provide instruction in STEM-related topics. The range of approaches includes: developing techniques for creating realistic and supportive student-tutor interactions; creating analytic and modeling methods for adapting to students' learning capabilities; producing methods for mapping information to an instructional curriculum; and crafting techniques for maintaining students' active engagement. Each team also will conduct assessments of their unique solutions in order to evaluate the return on investment for these tutors.

At the end of the first phase, the four teams will be judged upon how well the tutors improve students' knowledge retention, reasoning and problem-solving skills. One or two teams will be selected for phase two, which provides another year of funding—up to $1 million per team—to produce a system that can be used to educate Sailors and Marines.

"An aggressive development plan across two very different student populations will drive significant technical innovation in the development of digital tutoring technology. This approach will make a significant positive impact on the quality of educational technology in the teaching of critical STEM skills," said Cmdr. Joseph Cohn, who is co-managing the STEM Grand Challenge with Dr. Ray Perez.

The second phase of the program will transition the best digital tutoring systems to naval schoolhouses and laptops. This STEM challenge, in addition to other efforts the DoN is exploring, will reduce training time and instructor costs while increasing the technical skills of recruits, Sailors and Marines in the digital age.

"Because it can take experts as many as 200 hours to develop an hour's worth of instructional content in today's digital tutors, another key objective is to develop authoring tools that make designing instructional curriculum content faster and more effective," said Perez.

ONR has a rich history of supporting basic and applied research in computer models of human information processing. Early work on intelligent tutoring systems reaches as far back as the late 1960s.

Intelligent tutors, or digital tutors, use artificial intelligence systems to evaluate students' skills and knowledge in real time. The systems then adjust the subsequent tutoring methods and problem sets to address the knowledge gaps of each individual student. This tailored approach to education has been used successfully for math skills in public high schools as part of classroom curricula, enabling teachers to focus more time on the specific challenges of individual students.

Currently, the Navy is participating in testing a digital tutoring system for the Navy's Information Systems Technology (IT) rating and should complete that effort this spring. This program is funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and has shown promise. If final evaluation of the digital IT tutor is successful, this digital tutoring technology may be developed and adopted across Navy schoolhouses for a wide variety of technical curricula.

President Barack Obama has spoken frequently about boosting science and math education in U.S. schools. Last week, the president proposed an additional $80 million in government funding to train 100,000 specialized teachers who will help students master critical STEM skills to thrive in a technologically-driven economy.

Supporting the president's call for enhanced STEM initiatives, the DoN is rolling out new research and development projects that bolster the administration's vision through the use of digital tutor technologies.


For more on the STEM Grand Challenge, go to www.onr.navy.mil/Media-Center/Press-Releases/2011/STEM-Grand-Challenge-ONR.aspx.

About the Office of Naval Research

The Department of the Navy's Office of Naval Research (ONR) provides the science and technology necessary to maintain the Navy and Marine Corps' technological advantage. Through its affiliates, ONR is a leader in science and technology with engagement in 50 states, 70 countries, 1,035 institutions of higher learning and 914 industry partners. ONR employs approximately 1,400 people, comprising uniformed, civilian and contract personnel, with additional employees at the Naval Research Lab in Washington, D.C.