UMass Amherst Receives $624,000 in NSF Funding for Research on How We Learn and Create

AMHERST, Mass. - The University of Massachusetts is one of 28 colleges and universities to receive funding under a series of new grants from the National Science Foundation (NSF) that support a broad range of studies that could lead to rapid and radical advances in how humans learn and create.

The University received $624,050 for a project in which researchers will study how the reaching ability of infants is developed. The principal investigator for the three-year grant is Neil E. Berthier, associate professor of psychology. Co-principal investigators are Andrew G. Barto and Richard S. Sutton, both of the computer science department, and Rachel K. Clifton, psychology.

The purpose of all 28 NSF grants is to help develop a deeper understanding of how learning occurs in humans, animals, and artificial systems. Researchers will also explore how to develop new learning methods that integrate linguistic, behavioral, biological, cognitive, and educational approaches with new interactive, collaborative,and multisensory technologies, according to a statement from NSF.

Berthier said the aim of his research is to understand how highly complex intelligent systems (such as humans) could arise from a combination of simple beginnings and interactions with the environment.

Berthier uses the human infant as an example. "The human infant progresses from relatively simple abilities at birth to quite sophisticated abilities by two years of age," he says. Under the NSF grant, Berthier and his co-researchers will focus on how reaching skills and strategies develop during the first two years of life. The two computer scientists in the project are experts in developing mechanisms involved in controlling artificial systems such as robots, and biological systems such as humans. Together they will investigate and test how infants might gain control over their arms.

In a separate project, Beverly Woolf, research assistant professor in computer science, and Tom Murray, a visiting faculty member at Hampshire College who also holds appointments in computer science and the School of Education at UMass, are co-investigators on a $1 million grant that went to Hampshire College to build computer software to help students learn about science by actively engaging in the scientific process of proposing theories and investigating them. The software, which will be developed after studying classroom-based student-teacher interactions, will also help students work collaboratively to create and critique their scientific hypotheses.