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April 25, 2024

Husband and wife to develop AI math tutor with WPI, $4M in funding

A red sign with "WPI" in white letters in front of an uphill field leading to a brick building. Photo | Grant Welker Worcester Polytechnic Institute

Worcester Polytechnic Institute is expanding its commitment to generating innovative technology, this time with a three-year, multi-million dollar initiative to develop an artificial intelligence math tutor designed to support middle school students struggling with math and unable to afford private tutoring.  

Neil Heffernan, professor of computer science and director of the learning sciences and technologies program, will lead the project’s research along with a cohort of psychology and learning science researchers, teachers, and education experts, according to a WPI press release Wednesday. 

In a cost-sharing agreement totalling in more than $4.1 million, the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences will provide $3.7 million while WPI will supply $375,815 towards the development.

The team will work together to create a conversational AI tutor, referred to as CAIT, to be incorporated into ASSISTments, a free digital math learning resource for teachers and students. ASSISTments, which was co-founded by Heffernan and his wife and former math teacher Cristina Heffernan with headquarters in Worcester, works to make math teaching and learning more evidence-based while providing equitable support for its students.  

“Tutors are very effective at helping students learn math and succeed in class, but the cost of private tutoring services is beyond students from low-income backgrounds,” Heffernan said in the release. “This leads to a persistent learning gap between lower-income students and students from families that can afford tutoring. A free AI tutor that students could access after school while doing homework would help address this gap and enable lower-income students who have fallen behind in class to catch up to their peers, be more engaged with their lessons, and succeed as they learn the concepts needed to advance to higher-level math.”

Students will be able to utilize CAIT’s conversational interface and ability to understand and generate human language to speak and write questions and receive personalized responses. CAIT will survey students’ work, recognizing issues learners are experiencing, offering encouragement, and providing supplemental problems for practice. Implementation of CAIT in educational settings will be monitored by WestEd, a San Francisco- based education research organization.  

“Positive experiences with math can boost students’ self-esteem and motivate them to keep going. This transformative solution will enable students to learn their homework instead of just ‘doing’ the problems,” Cristina Heffernan said in the release. 

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