Artificial intelligence (AI) is poised to revolutionize the way humans live, even in ways yet unseen, and education is no exception. IES funds research at the cutting edge of technology and education science, and, as Director Mark Schneider has recently pointed out, AI may eventually serve to help educators identify, assess, and support students with disabilities. In 2018, NCSER awarded funding to Dr. Maithilee Kunda of Vanderbilt University to do just that.
Dr. Kunda and her team are developing a new game called Film Detective to improve theory of mind (ToM) reasoning in adolescents with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). ToM reasoning is the ability to infer the mental state of others, allowing us to understand and predict behavior based on our perception of their beliefs, intentions, and desires. The game builds on a technology-based intervention known as Betty’s Brain. Developed with support from a NCER grant, Betty’s Brain is a computer-based instructional program for middle school science that allows students to teach a computer agent to understand certain concepts. By teaching the agent, students grew their own knowledge and understanding. Dr. Kunda and her team are building on this software by adapting the learning-by-teaching model to improve ToM reasoning in neurodiverse students. (For more on Dr. Kunda’s perspective on the importance of neurodiversity, see this blog.)
The Film Detective game takes students through an interactive storyline in which they must help a scientist from the year 3021 “decode” the way people in today’s world behave in a series of films. The stakes are high as students help a scientist unlock a time machine by retrieving codes hidden in films by an evil scientist—aptly named Von Klepto—who has stolen items from the Museum of Human History. By teaching the computer agent—the player’s robot sidekick (named T.O.M.)—how to identify modern behaviors, the student develops their own ToM reasoning. The Film Detective storyline is a product of the creative talents of several Vanderbilt creative writing students, and the game mechanics were designed with insights of college students with ASD themselves. With the help of post-doctoral student and project lead, Roxanne Rashedi, the project team has used participatory design and qualitative methods to better tailor the game to the community for which it is intended. By working closely with students with ASD and their families, the project team was able to refine the original Betty’s Brain structure with new reward structures and storylines that balance the challenge of the game with the frustration that students can feel playing the game.
Film Detective’s Theatre and Time Machine Room (illustration by Kayla Stark)
Every part of the project draws on the diverse expertise of the team, and the inclusion of a variety of perspectives has been crucial to informing the project’s development. The team includes experts from Vanderbilt’s School of Engineering and the Vanderbilt Medical Center’s Treatment and Research Institute for Autism Spectrum Disorders (TRIAD), with Dr. Kunda and students in computer science and psychology providing insights in cognitive science and artificial intelligence. The joining of expertise in artificial intelligence, clinical psychology, and educational psychology has allowed the team to merge theoretical perspectives on ToM development with conceptions of knowledge representation and modeling in computational systems. This approach offers the team a unique framework for understanding the development of social reasoning skills in students with ASD. Beyond the theoretical, the team has also leveraged artificial intelligence to evaluate how students progress through the game, using advanced data mining techniques and eye-tracking-enabled user studies to better understand how students with ASD can develop greater ToM reasoning through learning-by-teaching.
Film Detective’s Hallway to Concessions (illustration by Kayla Stark)
The work that has gone into Film Detective exemplifies the ways that novel research that combines technological advancement and diverse perspectives can lead to important innovations in the education sciences. While Film Detective is still under development (it is currently being user tested, and readers are encouraged to sign up to take part here), IES is eager to see what will come out of this exciting collaboration.
Dr. Maithilee Kunda is the director of the Laboratory for Artificial Intelligence and Visual Analogical Systems and a faculty investigator for the Frist Center for Autism and Innovation at Vanderbilt University. This blog was written and edited by Bennett Lunn, Truman-Albright Fellow for the National Center for Education Research and the National Center for Special Education Research.