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The ABCs of Advanced Physics

Raytheon adapts military "intelligent tutor" technology for STEM education

Kaitlyn Bishay and Margaret Knoblock concentrate as Steve Eno, physics teacher at El Segundo High School, explains how to use the intelligent tutor Help feature.

Physics is hard. Getting students to learn it is even harder.

Steve Eno, physics teacher at El Segundo High School in California has a secret weapon: Raytheon’s Learning Platform, an intelligent tutoring technology that the company is donating to high school physics departments.

 “My students are always trying new things, so at first they thought the Learning Platform was just another one of my experiments,” Eno said. "After using it for a class period, they wanted to get right back on."

Built by Raytheon BBN, the defense contractor’s legendary research and development lab, the Learning Platform guides students through assigned problems to help them master physics problems at their own pace. The intelligent tutor software not only instructs, but also responds to students, offering guidance that is customized in real time to an individual's pace and learning; in other words, it behaves in some of the ways a human instructor would, providing hints and information based on student performance.

The Learning Platform was originally developed for the U.S. Office of Naval Research STEM Grand Challenge, where the goal was to create adaptive, intelligent systems to teach and promote science, technology, engineering and math – the subjects that are collectively known as STEM. The system uses artificial intelligence to provide immediate feedback and guidance to keep individual learners engaged.

Raytheon BBN has been developing advanced tutoring systems for decades, but usually for the US Air Force or Navy. The systems are used to teach skills such as troubleshooting maintenance issues on fighter jets or maneuvering remotely operated underwater search vehicles. The Learning Platform applies the same principles that make those systems so powerful: effective instructional practice, careful monitoring of student responses, and individualized tutoring and feedback.

This screen shot of the help feature in Raytheon BBN's Learning Platform illustrates how customized instruction can be presented to a student.

"The Learning Platform is designed to promote self-paced learning through problem-solving and is accessible to students on a wide variety of devices," said Rohit Kumar, Ph.D., a senior scientist at Raytheon BBN and leader of the development team.

Teachers who are already using the system endorse the system.  “I found the students were much more engaged in their active practice and loved getting immediate feedback and guidance when working through problems," Eno said.

In addition to guiding students through solving problems, the Learning Platform makes it easy for teachers to track and assess student learning.

"The teacher reports gave me great insights into my students' progress," said Eno. "I have used many different tools, and the BBN Learning Platform reports painted the clearest picture of what my students understood and what they needed to work on. It would take me multiple, traditional, formative assessments to learn what this gave me easily."

Massachusetts teachers Jim Kernohan of Milton Academy and Janine Towle of Arlington Catholic High School both used the Learning Platform to check student understanding of topics that were covered in class. The system "helped them to solidify their knowledge of the material," Towle said.

Kernohan's students found the Learning Platform more enjoyable than the usual follow-up methods. "It was more like a game, less like a quiz or test," he said.

Benjamin Hudson tackles his first problem on his own on the BBN Learning Platform.

Eno and Kernohan would like to see the platform expanded to other subjects. If he had a similar tool that covered particle physics or quantum mechanics, for example, "It would be a great way to challenge the more advanced students," Kernohan said.

Eno believes the system has a lot to offer teachers. "If the BBN Leaning Platform were used across the core curriculum, we could gather a ton of data around how students problem solve and learn,” he said. “We could create new statistics that are way more meaningful than the few data points that are currently used in education. The advanced metrics we get from the Learning Platform could trigger a revolution in education, similar to the data revolution in baseball."

You can use the system to test your own physics problem solving ability here: http://learnform01.bbn.com/

Physics teachers interested in learning more about the BBN Learning Platform can email: learnform@bbn.com

Published: 10/26/2015

Last Updated: 01/13/2016

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