NEWS Ivon Arroyo and ALT Team

Ivon Arroyo Innovating New Approaches to Support Teachers and Students Using Embodied Learning, AI and Game Design

Ivon Arroyo, who shares a faculty appointment between the College of Education and the Manning College of Information and Computer Sciences (CICS), and her team of researchers in the Advanced Learning Technology Lab have two research studies simultaneously underway that aim to support STEM learning for K-12 learners. “WearableLearning” and “MathSpring” both address differences in cognitive, social and affective realities of students and respond to the needs of learners in real time.

With WearableLearning, Students fasten a smartphone to their wrist and then open a web program loaded with STEM activities and fun, active games. What makes this program unique is its fluid design and how students interact with the phone, physical materials, the environment and other students. When students get stuck, the WearableLearning games provide them with customized feedback, prompts and words of encouragement. Students are also able to play the role of gamemaker and design their own activities.

The WearableLearning curriculum itself gets students out of their seats and up on their feet, moving around the classroom to work with their peers, discover, discern, discard, build or measure objects, and even compete in group-based challenges. 

In one WearableLearning game, students are prompted to identify different shapes after being provided clues about their color, number of sides and geometry. They then race to another location in the room, collect the designated shapes, and return to their home base, where they assemble a puzzle. This experience is exhilarating, both for the students engaged in the activity, and Arroyo’s researchers, all of whom take detailed notes about what they observe.

“What we’ve found is that students don’t give up right away,” says Krishna Chaitanya Rao Kathala, a first-year doctoral student in the College of Education. “Through this embodiment approach, we’ve realized that kids get better ideas. Playing games also engenders more collaboration between them.”

MathSpring, another software program developed by the ALT lab and the Center for Knowledge Communication (CICS), uses artificial intelligence (AI) features to support students preparing for standardized tests in math. When students get stuck on a problem, they can ask for hints, watch videos, and request to see fully worked-out example problems. MathSpring can even analyze student faces using computer vision to determine when they get distracted and go-off task; the program also tracks students' effort when they give up solving a math problem. MathSpring provides an option for educators to enable a cartoon avatar who empathizes with the student, trains their growth mindset, provides messages of support, and encourages students to ask for help.

This all has the effect of reducing “math anxiety,” says Injila Rasul, a doctoral student at UMass Amherst and the ALT lab’s data analysis expert. According to Rasul, mathematics is often branded as a challenging, even scary, academic discipline. This characterization is problematic, she notes, because math skills are invaluable to broadening students' career options. It is all the more important, Rasul adds, to make interventions in school districts with high percentages of students from historically marginalized backgrounds.

“Had I been taught in a way that was playful, that was less fearful, I think I would have had a much better journey through the world of math," she said. "That’s something I want to personally correct for."