UF partners on NSF-funded National Artificial Intelligence Research Institute focused on STEM learning

UF partners on NSF-funded National Artificial Intelligence Research Institute focused on STEM learning

The National Science Foundation announced today that it has selected a team of scientists from the University of Florida and the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign to lead a $20 million institute to advance artificial intelligence to promote STEM education.

The AI Institute for Inclusive Intelligent Technologies for Education (INVITE) will be based in Illinois with UF as a major partner and with scholars and practitioners from across the U.S.

“AI holds the potential to transform STEM education by learning from diverse students’ data and empowering teachers to customize students’ experiences,” said Kristy Elizabeth Boyer, managing director of the new institute and a professor of computer science in UF’s Herbert Wertheim College of Engineering. “The INVITE Institute will collect unparalleled datasets for training AI systems to deliver this customized learning, with a partner network of over 96,000 students across 24 school districts in eight states.”

The INVITE Institute seeks to fundamentally reframe how educational technologies interact with learners by developing AI tools and approaches to support three crucial noncognitive skills known to underlie effective learning: persistence, academic resilience and collaboration.

“We’re honored to be selected to partner on this important NSF institute, which is critical to ensuring that teachers know each child’s strengths and weaknesses and can adapt their strategies accordingly,” said UF President Ben Sasse. “At the University of Florida, we recognize that AI isn’t the next big thing, it is the big thing; using these technologies to help young people succeed will provide significant long-term benefits for our state, our nation and our world.”

The institute’s use-inspired research will focus on how children communicate STEM content, how they learn to persist through challenging work, and how teachers support and promote noncognitive skill development. The AI-based tools created as a result will be integrated into classrooms to empower teachers to support learners in more customized ways.

“Supporting all children as they achieve their goals is one of the most promising ways we can harness AI to benefit society,” said Maya Israel, an associate professor of Educational Technology at UF and senior personnel of the INVITE Institute. “With unique capabilities among its partner institutions, the INVITE Institute will create new techniques and technologies that benefit tens of thousands of students from a range of backgrounds and experiences.”

A key purpose of the INVITE research is to broaden engagement with and learning of STEM among historically marginalized groups at K-12 levels by investigating emerging AI techniques and building intelligent technologies. Postsecondary students will be heavily involved through educational and research opportunities that strive to build a diverse workforce of scientists and engineers.

“In the INVITE Institute, our talented faculty will leverage unique AI infrastructure in a multi-institutional effort that addresses arguably the most important responsibility we have, namely the preparation of our children for future success,” said David Norton, vice president for research at UF. “University of Florida researchers will join others to understand how AI and related technologies can improve the educational experience for K-12 learners. This is critically important as we seek to elevate education for all students in our country.”

The institute will build national capacity for AI research and broadening participation in computing through nationwide partnerships, professional development programs, outreach and community activities, and provide a wide range of AI in education resources.

The NSF’s funding partner for the INVITE Institute is the U.S. Department of Education Institute of Education Sciences.

With more than $500 million in support from the NSF and its funding partners, the National AI Institutes represent the most significant federal investment in AI research and workforce development to date, according to the agency.

This story was originally published at news.ufl.edu.

Kristy Elizabeth Boyer

Kristy Elizabeth Boyer, Ph.D.

Maya Israel

Maya Israel, Ph.D.

“This is a perfect example of dynamic collaboration across UF that promises to transform education,” said College of Education Dean Glenn Good. “Dr. Israel has been leading research around computer science in K-12 settings for years, growing significant domain expertise, and her work with this NSF AI Institute will surely capitalize on that compendium of knowledge.”

UF’s AI in Education Workshop brings leading AI researchers together

UF’s AI in Education Workshop brings leading AI researchers together

Artificial intelligence is changing the landscape of education, creating opportunities to personalize learning, enhance experiences and provide improved feedback as we progress into the future. 

This was the topic of the University of Florida’s AI in Education Workshop that took place Thursday from 3 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. Drawing about 350 participants, the Zoom webinar provided insight into AI developments from the perspectives of 18 leading researchers. 

The speakers were not only from renowned NSF AI Research Institutes but also three major learning companies: Duolingo, Khan Academy and ASSISTments. The workshop bridged the gap between higher education and industry, shedding light on just how fast AI is developing and changing learning. 

During the welcome, Workshop Director Seyedahmad Rahimi, a UF College of Education assistant professor of Educational Technology in the Institute for Advanced Learning Technologies, defined AI and offered context about its uses in education to enhance assessment, experiences and evaluation.

“It has the potential to transform the way we teach and learn, and we are fortunate to have some of the foremost experts in the field of AI education gathered here today to share their knowledge and insights with us,” Rahimi said. 

Rahimi thanked the large group for joining, stating it served as a testament to the quality of the presenters’ work and the importance of AI discussions. 

The event featured a video message from Provost Joe Glover followed by six presentations — each of which had its own Q&A session. The presentations were given by representatives from the iSAT AI Institute, Duolingo, Engage AI Institute, Khan Academy, AI Institute for Adult Learning and Online Education and ASSISTments. 

In his address, Glover discussed the emphasis on AI at UF as it quickly transforms all aspects of life. Specifically, HiPerGator sparked UF’s AI initiatives, leading to the creation of 100 new faculty positions and the expectation that UF will graduate thousands of students who will apply these tools nationwide, Glover said. 

“The AI initiative drives an important transformation for the university,” Glover said in the video. “We believe we are building the nation’s first AI university.” 

During the first presentation, Peter Foltz, the executive director at the National Science Foundation AI Institute for Student-AI Teaming (iSAT), said a major theme of the research community is how they incorporate AI into teaching. 

Currently, Foltz said the institute is analyzing AI as a social collaborative partner that can work with teachers and students to increase effectiveness and engagement. They want to empower students in their learning, as well as their AI experiences, so they can later advance AI-based workplaces. 

“We’re having a lot of fun,” Foltz said. “And at the same time, we’re really moving things forward to be able to help students have these kinds of rich social collaborative learning experiences.” 

Alina von Davier, Duolingo’s chief of assessment, discussed the use of generative AI, technology that can make a variety of visual, audio and text content, for test development. 

“The world has been always changing, but education in particular nowadays is more and more being redefined by global events, digitally mediated life and, in general, technology and AI,” she said. 

The most important features of assessment focus on test takers’ experiences, she said. When working to improve them, von Davier said outreach, access, validity and security must be considered. Duolingo’s team is working to remove the anxiety-causing obstacles of exam taking, such as going to a testing center, timing and being in front of a proctor.  

“What we are trying to do is to bring those together so that we can take advantage of what each of the two — human and AI — can do best,” von Davier said. 

At the NSF AI Institute for Engaged Learning, Director James Lester said two types of work are underway: use-inspired AI research and foundational AI research. Specifically, the institute is making strides in story-based and narrative-centered learning. 

The institute, Lester said, is focused on STEM learning and is looking to impact engagement experiences in classrooms and after-school programs. In particular, narrative-centered learning immerses students into a story. 

To further this area, they are working to design new technologies and develop prototypes of narrative-centered learning environments that are responsive to what students and teachers need. The technology has the potential to adapt story plots to the student’s background and to play them out in different worlds, as well as through text-based conversational interactions. 

“We’re working toward a vision of having an architecture that can readily accommodate new narrative planners, new embodied conversational agents, new multimodal learning analytics and do so in a way that’s extensible not only to the researchers in the institute but also to practitioners,” Lester said. 

Kristen DiCerbo, Khan Academy’s chief learning officer, said the nonprofit education organization is experimenting with generative AI as a student partner in language-based activities, a dialogue-based tutor, a teaching assistant and as an assistant for content creators. 

Currently, these features are not open to all of Khan Academy’s registered users. The learning organization is still in the process of testing them.

Using open and generative AI models, DiCerbo said the organization has been able to think a lot about the role of the tutor. The technology can create an interactive experience for students, asking them to explain their work and creating dialogue back-and-forth.

The Khan Academy team used reinforcement learning to make the AI tutor-like. They explored how to write prompts, trained it to be better at math and made sure it would check its work before responding to students, DiCerbo said. The activities page for students and the prompt playground for teachers, which allows them to test developments, are features made possible by AI. 

“One of the things that this AI brings that I never expected was that it’s actually really easy to sit down with a teacher and craft an experience,” DiCerbo said. “You don’t need to be a coder to do this.” 

Chris Dede, the associate director for research at NSF AI Institute for Adult Learning and Online Education, said the demographic of the world is changing, expanding the need for adult education. 

Adults frequently need to “rescale and upskill,” Dede said, because of world changes and improving technologies. However, adults are different learners than children, so their institute is designing AI agents to account for necessary personalization corresponding to adults’ needs, ages, experiences and other differentiators. 

“So, our challenging task is to think about how to meet these massive continuous rescaling and upskilling needs that constitute lifelong learning beyond formal education,” Dede said. 

Specifically, Dede said the institute is working to improve adult education by effectively using remote learning, improving personalization and solving engagement problems associated with online classes.

“I think what we’re all going to find is that we’re no longer in the education business — not in the world as it’s becoming,” Dede said. “We’re in the learning business, and the learning business is really different than the education business.” 

In the workshop’s final presentation, Neil Heffernan, the William Smith Dean’s professor of computer science and director of the Learning Sciences & Technology program at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, discussed the work of ASSISTments. Heffernan is the co-founder of the online learning platform, which both helps students with instruction and teachers with assessment. 

Using the platform, teachers can build problems and feedback that can then be assigned to their students, Heffernan said. 

“One of the points of ASSISTments is actually to not just give assistance to the student but to give assistance to the teacher, so they can actually realize, ‘Holy cow, I kind of actually made an error,’” he said.  

The team is currently working to apply its platform to help teachers understand open-ended questions written by students. 

“We can actually reliably increase student learning with some simple interventions, and I’m excited to actually use these sorts of interventions to do that,” Heffernan said. 

After the presentations, attendees split into panel rooms of their choice moderated by UF faculty, with categories such as AI partnership, education, fundamental research, assessment and policy. The workshop wrapped up with a group debrief of the panel discussions, leaving the audience to ponder how AI will affect the future, its very definition and the development of ethical boundaries. 

Contributors in the panel discussions were Sidney D’Mello, Valerie Shute, Danielle S. McNamara, Ryan Baker, George Siemens, Diego Zapata-Rivera, Kristy Boyer, Victor Lee, Lin Lin Lipsmeyer, Richard Golden, Russell Almond and Rene Kizilcec. 

Going forward, Rahimi will lead a paper based on the workshop to discuss the state of AI in education and its future. The presenters and contributors from the workshop will be co-authors of the piece, which will be sent for publication in a scientific journal. 

A full collection of workshop recordings, including panel room sessions, will be available on the Institute for Advanced Learning Technologies’ website.

Seyedahmad Rahimi

Dr. Seyedahmad Rahimi


Chris Dede

Dr. Chris Dede

James Lester

Dr. James Lester

Sidney D'Mello

Dr. Sidney D’Mello

Peter Foltz

Dr. Peter Foltz

Alina A von Davier

Dr. Alina von Davier

Kristen DiCerbo

Dr. Kristen DiCerbo

Neil T. Heffernan

Dr. Neil T. Heffernan


IALT professor receives funding for AI project on mesocredentials and student learning

IALT professor receives funding for AI project on mesocredentials and student learning

Rob Moore, assistant professor of educational technology and the director of the IDEATE Lab, recently received a Spencer Foundation Small Research Grant to examine learners’ intentions to complete the first MOOC (massive open online courses) in a mesocredential program. This study will be the first comprehensive analysis of learner intentions in mesocredential programs. External support, like that from the Spencer Foundation, is possible because of the technological and cultural strength of the University of Florida’s AI initiative. Research like Moore’s illustrate the creativity with which faculty associated with the Institute for Advanced Learning Technologies (IALT) are addressing tomorrow’s challenges.

Rob Moore is smiling with trees behind him. He is wearing a brown blazer with a blue button up shirt.

Rob Moore, Ph.D. 

A Human-Centered Approach

Using a learner-centered approach that combines learner intent with course outcomes instead of completion rates to evaluate effectiveness, Moore’s study will tell a more complete story of learner engagement and behavior within MOOCs than just end-of-course outcomes. Understanding learner intentions and behavior is the first step in supporting them in reaching their goals — which is important as mesocredential program offerings grow in popularity and stature. 

Moore’s study will dive deeper into how mesocredentials, as an evolution of the MOOC ecosystem, have significant potential to support alternative pathways to academic degrees. This study also builds on the mesocredential concept, which he introduced and defined as MOOC-based achievements that translate into academic credit in a 2022 Distance Education article.

AI at UF

Using a data set that includes hundreds of data points for the more than 35,000 learners enrolled in the MOOC, the HiPerGator supercomputer is allowing Moore to better understand the motivations of learners who enroll in MOOCs.

“With so many data points, we need to leverage techniques such as machine learning to efficiently analyze the data and identify learner behavior patterns,” said Moore.

“For instance, are there specific course behaviors that increase the likelihood of success in the MOOC? And the second challenge is around the ‘success’ rate of MOOCs. My study uses identifiable learner data that allows for the granular analysis of course predictors and outcomes. Understanding a student’s intention to complete a MOOC and if they were successful will allow us to make better learning recommendations — making online education more accessible for everyone.”

The University of Florida is making AI the centerpiece of a major initiative that combines world-class infrastructure, cutting-edge research, and a transformational approach to curriculum development and planning. At the College of Education, IALT faculty are researching, creating and disseminating advanced learning technologies that improve learning outcomes on an international scale.

“As AI tools become useful in studying problems of practice with very large data sets, such as the MOOC dataset in Dr. Moore’s research, assuring those tools are trained on data that truly represent the range of learners and their intentions is paramount,” said Tom Dana, IALT director and associate dean for academic affairs. “The Institute for Advanced Learning Technologies is the home to Dr. Moore’s lab, and we are committed to the transformation of teaching and learning through studying the application of technologies to authentic educational problems. Dr. Moore’s conceptualization of mesocredentials adds a promising dimension to understanding the professional learning intentions and needs of the adult learner, particularly in MOOC environments.”

Partnerships to Transform Education

With its focus on the diverse motivations of adult learners enrolling in MOOCs, Moore’s research is well suited for support from the Spencer Foundation, which has funded education research for over 50 years. The highly competitive Small Research Grant focuses on funding “rigorous, intellectually ambitious and technically sound research that is relevant to the most pressing questions and compelling opportunities in education.” 

Moore, who recently received the Charles M. Reigeluth Emerging Researcher Award, is lauded for his work on digital learning ecologies and for encouraging his fellow educational technology scholars to engage with big data. As a reviewer for this project noted, “Moore is an increasingly visible scholar in educational technology research and has been involved in the movement of more AECT-affiliated scholars into learning analytics and big data projects.”

“As an emerging scholar in the field, winning the Spencer research grant is a huge confidence boost,” said Moore.

“For the reviewers to see the same vision that I have for mesocredentials is humbling and exciting. This award is foundational for my career and will establish key pieces to my evolving research program of study. I am ecstatic that I will be to devote dedicated research time for the next two years doing a deep dive into mesocredentials.”

Hey Chatbot, tell me how kids can learn about AI

Hey Chatbot, tell me how kids can learn about AI

UF researchers and students hold summer camp for local children to make AI more accessible.

Soccer-bot, stress-bot and fashion-bot are just three examples of conversational apps created by middle schoolers using a unique digital interface developed by University of Florida researchers. AMBY, which stands for AI Made By You, was piloted this summer as a part of Camp DIALOGS, an NSF-funded project aimed at making artificial intelligence and computer science more accessible, particularly for students in lower-income areas. The camp is a joint effort between UF’s Herbert Wertheim College of Engineering and College of Education and aligns with the university’s integrated approach to AI. In addition to providing pathways for camp attendees to learn more about AI and computer science, the lesson activities and learning approaches developed for the camp will be made available to middle school teachers throughout Florida.

This story was originally published at news.ufl.edu.

AI mini-symposium showcases UF College of Education’s commitment to the field

AI mini-symposium showcases UF College of Education’s commitment to the field

The University of Florida College of Education hosted the AI in Education mini-symposium, serving as an opportunity for researchers, educators, administrators and industry representatives to discuss the trends and issues in AI in education. As UF moves to become the nation’s first comprehensive AI university, the College of Education’s Institute for Advanced Learning Technology is positioning itself as a notable partner in AI research and instruction.
Two people are standing and looking intently at information on a large screen on the wall. The one towards the front has their hand out and explains the information to the other.
A symposium participant explains their research

AI is truly in the air!

The response the symposium organizers have received from the community has been truly amazing!” said event organizer Pavlo “Pasha” Antonenko, an associate professor of educational technology and director of the NeurAL Lab. “What is really important is that the attendees represented so many different stakeholder groups. We had a number of local entrepreneurs join us, NVIDIA representatives, school leaders, people who work with FL policymakers in Tallahassee, and, of course, researchers from all over our state. You could observe emerging partnerships and collaborations during breakout groups and other networking sessions. AI is truly in the air!”

Faculty from the college presented in-progress applications of AI research. Anthony Botelho, assistant professor of educational technology, discussed using natural language processing and machine learning to create a parent-facing literacy screener to help close literacy gaps with at-home reading. Maya Israel, associate professor of educational technology and computer science education, shared outcomes from the first iteration of Camp DIALOGS. This two-week summer camp experience offers middle school students the opportunity to create spoken conversational apps while learning foundational computer science and artificial intelligence principles.

In posters, demo sessions and the course showcase, participants from the College of Education, College of Design Construction and Planning and the Herbert Wertheim College of Engineering shared projects and pedagogy that addressed AI education from early childhood through college. Antonenko was optimistic about what was shared during these sessions. “It is very exciting to see the new courses our COE faculty have developed on AI in education over the last year! Wanli Xing and David Therrialut‘s new courses are highly accessible, which is very important. Many people view AI as something that requires advanced data science skills, but the core concepts can be taught without such prerequisite knowledge. On the other hand, we are also offering exciting new courses that tie together AI and research methods— like Jinnie Shin‘s new courses on Computational Psychometrics and Natural Language Processing.

One pervasive idea was present throughout the day— making AI concepts accessible and relevant to learners of all ages and backgrounds. As AI is implemented through the totality of UF’s curriculum, the researchers and innovators at the College of Education are translating research into practice to dramatically improve learning outcomes for Gators and learners everywhere.

UF Researchers Earn Grant to Teach Middle Schoolers About Shark Teeth Using AI

UF Researchers Earn Grant to Teach Middle Schoolers About Shark Teeth Using AI

This story was originally published at news.ufl.edu and floridamuseum.ufl.edu.

With the goal of recruiting more students to STEM and computer science careers, a team from the University of Florida’s Thompson Earth Systems Institute (TESI), the College of Education and the Herbert Wertheim College of Engineering will partner with the Calvert Marine Museum in Maryland on a three-year, $1.3 million project funded by the National Science Foundation to teach Florida middle school teachers and students how to use artificial intelligence (AI) to identify fossil shark teeth.

Using a branch of AI called “machine learning,” humans will teach computers how to use shape, color and texture to identify the teeth of the extinct giant shark megalodon.

Like dinosaurs, sharks are a charismatic group of animals that excite students, says Bruce MacFadden, director of TESI and one of the project’s principal investigators. As a hotspot for fossil shark teeth, Florida is the perfect location for this kind of program. Additionally, teachers will have access to the Florida Museum of Natural History’s collection of tens of thousands of shark specimens.

“Sharks are the hook to get them interested and, with their simple morphology, are easy specimens to identify using AI. Once we have the students’ attention, we will be able to work on how machine learning can help them answer other scientific questions,” said MacFadden, who is also a distinguished professor and paleontologist at the museum.

Students will first be tasked to make scientific observations of various tooth characteristics to feed into the computer algorithm. Once students teach the computer how to identify megalodon teeth, they will use the same method to identify other types of sharks’ teeth found along Florida’s beaches and river bottoms.

Co-principal investigator Victor Perez, a UF alumnus and an expert on extinct sharks such as megalodon, is now a paleontologist at the Calvert Marine Museum in Maryland.

“Using sharks as examples, we hope to dispel some of the myths that go along with AI, so that students can better understand possible careers around technology and computer science,” Perez said.

A core component of the project will be annual professional development workshops where 76 middle school teachers will work alongside paleontologists, education researchers and engineers to develop standards-based lesson plans. Preference will be given to teachers from schools that receive Title I funds to provide additional resources for low-income students. The customizable lesson plans and interactive machine learning models will be available on the project’s website for any teacher to access for free.

“The lesson plans developed by teachers and the project team will integrate science content, computer science and engineering skills, and discovery of career pathways for the benefit of middle school teachers and their students,” said Pasha Antonenko, associate professor of educational technology in the UF College of Education, and one of the project’s co-principal investigators.

“With this project, we will not only enhance students’ interest in science, but also introduce them to machine learning methods.”

The teachers will be recruited through TESI’s Scientist in Every Florida School (SEFS) program, which was one of eight pilot projects launched in 2019 with funding from UF’s Moonshot Initiative. SEFS is the first statewide program of its kind that matches working researchers with K-12 classrooms in the state. More than 900 teachers have participated in SEFS since its launch in 2019.

“We have developed close relationships with teachers and school districts in 41 counties and counting,” said Brian Abramowitz, K-12 education and outreach coordinator for SEFS. “The teachers have come to know and trust our professional development programs, and we are excited to recruit them for this exciting new venture.”

The project helps further the university’s goal of becoming a national leader of AI development and application. UF is currently home to the most powerful university-owned supercomputer in the U.S.

Co-principal investigator Jeremy Waisome, an instructional assistant professor in the UF Herbert Wertheim College of Engineering, will be responsible for helping students and teachers develop and understand machine learning models. At the same time, the team will be analyzing student and teacher perceptions of AI in science.

“We hope to understand ways to integrate AI in science classrooms that are accessible, engaging and exciting,” Waisome said. “We believe this foundational knowledge will inspire students to consider careers in STEM.”

Bruce MacFadden, bmacfadd@flmnh.ufl.edu, 352-362-3072
Pasha Antonenko, p.antonenko@coe.ufl.edu, 352-273-4176
Brian Abramowitz, babramowitz@floridamuseum.ufl.edu, 516-225-9390
Jeremy Waisome, jwaisome@eng.ufl.edu

Rebecca Burton, rlburton@floridamuseum.ufl.edu, 850-316-1555

Featured image:
Victor Perez holds tooth of extinct giant shark Megalodon. Florida Museum photo by Kristen Grace

Victor Perez holds tooth of extinct giant shark Megalodon

Victor Perez holds tooth of extinct giant shark Megalodon