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 researcher receives NSF grant to develop curriculum to teach computing hardware fundamentals

UF researcher receives NSF grant to develop curriculum to teach computing hardware fundamentals

Pavlo “Pasha” Antonenko, an associate professor of educational technology and director of the NeurAL Lab, was recently awarded a $600,000 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to design gamified curriculum to teach computing hardware fundamentals. 

This collaborative grant, which includes Mary Jo Koroly, research associate professor, and Swarup Bhunia, Semmoto endowed professor, at the University of Florida, along with Tamzidul Hoque, assistant professor of electrical engineering and computer science at the University of Kansas, will create modules that provide a system-level perspective of modern electronic systems. Antonenko believes this will address the skill gap in the current electronics industry that is contributing to the current computer chip shortage.

Pasha Antonenko
Pavlo “Pasha” Antonenko, Ph.D. 

“Chips are used in electronic devices that we use in our everyday life,” said Antonenko. “Like most countries in the world, the United States currently relies on computer chips manufactured in Asia and the recent global supply chain crisis has affected our ability to produce and use the products that use chips.”

There is interest in rebuilding the United States’ capacity to produce chips currently used by vehicles, smartphones and other technologies. In January, Intel announced a commitment to spend $20 billion on a new plant in Ohio, possibly spending $100 billion over the next decade. 

But once those plants are built, knowledgeable engineers, scientists and technicians will be needed to work in industries. And that’s the problem Antonenko and his collaborators plan to solve.

Despite college students using technology every day—and many entering college with an understanding of programming—most lack basic knowledge of computing hardware fundamentals. The emphasis on analytics, software development and artificial intelligence motivates students to avoid hardware-related college courses. According to Antonenko, “this limits the exposure students in these programs have to educational resources and experiences that focus on the hardware aspects of computing.”

But there is a solution to this problem: games that teach hardware fundamentals. The team plans to work with high school teachers to co-develop curriculum that uses a gamified approach to motivate and engage college undergraduate and high school students to stimulate interest in computer hardware. 

The investigators will design and test a new gamified curriculum at UF before introducing them to high school students and teachers at UF Center for Pre-collegiate Education and Training summer institutes. Curriculum for the high school level supports Florida’s Computer Science Education Standards similar to the CSforED—with the goal of recruiting undergraduate students interested in pursuing hardware engineering.

“Computer science and engineering undergraduates as well as high school students will develop more nuanced and well-rounded understanding of computer hardware and its interaction with software, particularly as this relates to the problems our society is experiencing such as cybersecurity,” he said.

Moreover, Antonenko believes that using games that focus on collaboration rather than competition “will further support the participation of all students in our curriculum.” He hopes that this approach will “be relevant and engaging” for “populations historically underrepresented in engineering.”

This NSF Grant brings together expertise from the College of Education, Herbert Wertheim College of Engineering and Center for Precollegiate Education and Training at UF, and the University of Kansas College of Engineering. Andrea Salgado-Ramirez, a UF Educational Technology doctoral student interested in high school computer science education, will serve as the project’s research assistant. 

Faculty and students at the UF College of Education are positioned to “contribute unique expertise on culturally sustaining education, motivational design of instruction, mixed-method educational research, and development of situational and maintained interest in STEM” via this NSF grant.


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 and

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,, 352-362-3072
Pasha Antonenko,, 352-273-4176
Brian Abramowitz,, 516-225-9390
Jeremy Waisome,

Rebecca Burton,, 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

Comic book introduces kids to key concepts and careers in cybersecurity

Comic book introduces kids to key concepts and careers in cybersecurity

The number of cybersecurity jobs is expected to grow up to 33% in the near future.
fstop123/E+ via Getty Images

Kara Dawson, University of Florida and Pavlo Antonenko, University of Florida

A paper wheel with different symbols sits on a desk.
Students crack a secret message using this Caesar wheel as part of a challenge.
CryptoComics, CC BY

Three 9-year-old girls are huddled around a Caesar wheel, an ancient tool for sharing secret messages.

Cracking a code is one of many challenges the girls complete to help characters in CryptoComics escape a mysterious cyberworld into which they’ve been drawn.

CryptoComics is a curriculum designed to teach elementary school children – particularly girls of color – about cybersecurity – the practice of keeping digital information safe – and related careers. It also teaches about cryptology – the science of making and breaking codes. The girls partake in this program as part of their after-school activities in Atlanta.

A computer screen shows a teacher going over a lesson plan.
Teachers can go over important lesson plans with students.
CryptoComics, CC BY

Led by a team of educators and researchers, CryptoComics strategically integrates a digital comic book, apps and unplugged activities, such as painting rocks with ancient symbols and making invisible ink. It also features stories about cybersecurity professionals who are women. CryptoComics is freely available on

We are both researchers in educational technology and STEM education. We are examining how the program – which we both helped develop – increases awareness about careers in cybsecurity.

The overall objective of the program is to spark girls’ interest in careers in cybersecurity. While it will take years to determine whether the program has the desired effect, early research shows that participants come out knowing about more potential jobs in cybersecurity than they did before.

Kids who’ve participated in the program have told researchers they “liked those jobs introduced in CryptoComics because they keep us safe from hackers.” They also liked that “you get to work on a team to figure out codes and break them.”

Vast reach of cyberattacks

Cybersecurity touches just about everyone in some way or another – from adults in the workplace and banking to schoolchildren. For instance, cybercriminals have been launching cyberattacks against U.S. schools at a record pace – as many as two per school day in 2020. Hackers also target individuals who use public Wi-Fi.

Cybersecurity professionals will likely be in demand for the foreseeable future. The federal government projects 33% growth in jobs in cybersecurity and related fields over the next decade or so. Yet women are highly underrepresented in the profession, making up only 11% of information security analysts.

Part of the reason is that young girls often don’t see themselves going into a field like computer science. But research shows that the attitudes elementary school children have toward STEM careers like cybersecurity can be changed. CryptoComics was designed to bring cybersecurity learning and career awareness to third to fifth grade girls through an engaging after-school curriculum.

A cartoon depiction of the four main characters standing together.
Akila, Bai, Carly and Jabari must solve a series of puzzles from the cyberworld.
CryptoComics, CC BY

The comic book, designed by media artist D.A. Jackson, begins when three friends – Akila, Carly and Bai – find a West African souvenir box belonging to Akila’s grandma. Akila takes a picture of the box with her tablet. Suddenly, she and her friends are sucked into a mysterious cyberworld.

As Akila narrates the story, students follow the girls and her little brother, Jabari, who communicates with the girls through the tablet. They crack codes and ciphers and solve puzzles. They also learn the history of cryptology and basics of cybersecurity to help the girls escape the cyberworld.

The six chapters of the comic book progress from basic information about codes and symbols to current cybersecurity practices such as creating safe passwords. Children explore important historical developments in cryptology approaches and technologies like the Navajo Code Talkers and the WAVES program. The Navajo Code Talkers were U.S. Marines of Navajo descent who used their native language to send secret messages over radio waves during WWII. WAVES – Women Accepted for Voluntarily Emergency Service – was a division of the U.S. Navy in which female cryptologists worked during WWII.

Children also use a variety of ciphers and codes to encrypt and decrypt information. This helps the comic book characters during their cyberadventure. Activities are grounded in symbols from different cultures such as a scytale from Greece, pictograms from West African and Native American culture and Freemason Pigpen ciphers.

In one panel a pink and blue colored heart is painted on a rock. Another panel shows missing letters in a text, and a final panel shows a soldier holding a spear in his hand.
Symbols and codes from different cultures hold important information for the main characters to use.
CryptoComics, CC BY

The curriculum culminates with games and simulations in which the children learn about cybersecurity. They learn to defend their device against the person who hacked Akila’s tablet. They learn about safe password practices and how to protect themselves from brute force password cracking – that is, using a program or guesswork to try every possible password combination; phishing scams that use fake emails to get people to click on malicious links; and social engineering attacks.

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For example, the comic book characters learn about social engineering when they go back in time to the British Government Code and Cypher School – now known as GCHQ. This is where they meet a WAVES servicewoman named Dorothy who turns out to be Akila’s grandma. They also meet Alan Turing, a real-life WWII cryptoanalyst.

Dorothy, Alan and the comic book characters work to crack a briefcase password using a letter found on a spy. Meanwhile, students participating in the curriculum work to crack the code via a simulation. Students learn that social engineering is a process hackers use to figure out passwords based on personal information such as a birth dates or names of family members.

A comic book panel shows a letter written from a young girl asking her grandfather to attend a birthday party.
Social engineering tactics are a gateway for hackers to get private information.
CryptoComics, CC BY

Preparing for cybersecurity careers

Over 200 elementary school-age students – 73% girls – from diverse backgrounds in 16 after-school programs across the Southeastern U.S. have participated in CryptoComics. Preliminary research, which we oversaw, has found that children enjoy the curriculum, learn how to encrypt and decrypt information in different ways and demonstrate awareness of cybersecurity professions. They also transfer knowledge and skills gained in CryptoComics to real-life experiences.

Teachers we have spoken with also say the curriculum “can be a game changer” for participating girls. The teachers report that students “quickly retained” concepts such as enciphering and deciphering – making and breaking different kinds of messages and codes.

Some students struggled with reading the comic book. They said they wanted audio support but they didn’t want a monotone computer voice. Instead, they wanted the audio “to act like the characters.” As a result, we recruited local voice actors to narrate the comic book.

The narration can be used by students who struggle with reading or who simply prefer listening to stories. Teachers confirmed that “the narrated version of the actual comic book itself has helped tremendously.” It has made the curriculum more accessible for struggling readers.

Tremendous career opportunities exist in cybersecurity. CryptoComics represents just one way to better position young children – and especially young girls – to take advantage of these opportunities.The Conversation

Kara Dawson, Professor of Educational Technology, University of Florida and Pavlo Antonenko, Associate Professor of Educational Technology, University of Florida

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

University of Florida Receives $5 Million Gift from Kenneth C. Griffin  to Boost Critical Computer Science Education for Teachers and Students

University of Florida Receives $5 Million Gift from Kenneth C. Griffin to Boost Critical Computer Science Education for Teachers and Students

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — The University of Florida (UF) on Wednesday announced a $5 million gift from Citadel Founder and CEO Ken Griffin to drive the expansion of its K–12 computer science education program. Maya Israel, associate professor of educational technology, will lead a team of researchers and teacher educators in building both a face-to-face and an online community of practice for teacher preparation and expanding computer science education across the state of Florida.

“Education is the most powerful solution we have to enable future generations of students and teachers to realize their potential,” Griffin said. “Computer science is central to our economy, and initiatives like CSforED are vital in preparing our country’s teachers with the skills and education they need to help our students seize on the opportunities ahead.”  

Griffin’s gift is part of a larger initiative focused on increasing access to high-quality computer science education across the United States and is one of four gifts that CSforAll, a central resource for individuals and organizations interested in K-12 computer science education, announced at the DEI Innovation Summit presented by Snap, Inc. on November 3.

The national philanthropic investments made by both individuals and corporations total $20 million and represent the next phase of CSforED – a CSforAll program that raises awareness of the need for computer science in teacher preparation and to build capacity in schools and colleges of education.

 “This investment in the University of Florida will solidify the national leadership work UF is already engaged in and create an opportunity for Florida teachers and students to be best prepared for our current digital workforce and economy,” said Leigh Ann DeLyser, co-founder and executive director of CSforALL.

Maya Israel speaking to attendees of the 2021 Board of Trustees event.

Maya Israel speaking to stakeholders at the 2021 Board of Trustees event.

With a proven track record of effective teacher preparation, along with research and programs focused on computer science education, state-wide reach and renowned faculty in its Institute of Advanced Learning Technologies, UF is uniquely positioned to expand computer science education across the state of Florida. 

Building upon existing efforts around teacher development and computer science inclusion, Israel noted this gift “will allow us to bring computer science into teacher preparation at scale.” The team will work toward integrating computer science into math, science, literacy and other disciplines to address the diverse needs of students in Florida classrooms and strengthen the state’s workforce. 

“Dr. Maya Israel is creating solutions for challenges faced by teachers and students in K–12 settings,” said Glenn Good, dean of the UF College of Education. “In addition to increasing equity and access, this transformative gift will help students develop the skills needed for the workforce of the future.”

The initiative will launch immediately and will follow a phased rollout over the next five years. Israel and her team will begin by bringing together researchers and teacher educators at UF and computer science education leaders from across the state to develop a coordinated vision for computer science teacher preparation before scaling up. To accomplish educator objectives, the team will engage stakeholders and expand advocacy efforts across the state, with organizations such as northeast Florida’s STEM2 Hub. 

“We join the University of Florida in celebrating this major gift, which will allow stakeholders to transform the landscape for computer science education across our state through teacher education,” said Kathleen Schofield, executive director of STEM2 Hub. “By empowering educators with knowledge and skills, we will build capacity to reach students across the state and equip them with foundational computer science skills they will need, leading to full participation in the growing technology sector and economic prosperity.”


The final phase of the implementation will focus on ensuring the long-term sustainability of the initiative and evaluating the model’s viability as a best-practice approach for computer science education across the country. 

With the shortage of computer science teachers being identified as a major issue in the recent Action to Catalyze Tech (ACT) Report, Israel states “we must prepare teachers to have both the technical skills and instructional practices to reach all learners.”

UF faculty receive NSF grant to develop a novel, AI-enhanced gaze-driven learning technology

UF faculty receive NSF grant to develop a novel, AI-enhanced gaze-driven learning technology

Multimedia has long been considered a powerful tool in instruction, but University of Florida researchers believe differences in learners’ visual attention and cognition can impact just how effective multimedia environments are in fostering learning outcomes for all.

Pavlo “Pasha” Antonenko, associate professor of educational technology and director of the Neuroscience Applications for Learning (NeurAL) Lab, and a team of researchers have received $821,412 from the National Science Foundation to design and test a novel, artificial intelligence (AI)-enabled gaze-driven adaptive learning technology that provides individualized multimedia learning support to students in real-time based on differences in their working memory capacity and visual attention patterns.

Working memory capacity provides the attentional control needed to select, organize and integrate information that is gained from multimedia materials such as text, video, audio or graphics. As learners have unique strengths and weaknesses, they too have differences in working memory capacity and the visual attention strategies that can either facilitate or hinder learning.

Pasha Antonenko

Pavlo “Pasha” Antonenko, Ph.D. 

“We assume that just because we’ve designed a nice PowerPoint or Google Slides presentation all students will effectively and efficiently understand everything, but in fact that’s not what happens because we do have a lot of individual differences that impact the way we learn,” said Antonenko, principal investigator of the project.

To address this gap, Antonenko will work alongside co-principal investigators Jonathan Martin, professor of geology, Kara Dawson, professor of educational technology, and Albert Ritzhaupt, professor of educational technology and computer science education, to develop GeoGaze — a display technology powered by AI that uses eye tracking to change multimedia learning materials in real-time based on students’ gaze behavior and differences in their working memory capacity. Marc Pomplun, principal investigator of the project’s sub-award and professor and chair of computer science at the University of Massachusetts Boston, will serve as the project’s eye tracking expert.

Using AI, GeoGaze will analyze and predict effective visual attention strategies for each student and then in real-time adapt the presentation of information to better support their learning.

“It’s a dangerous assumption, but we assume that if we show a person a screen that has some text and has a diagram, that they’re actually going to pay attention to either or both of these information sources,” Antonenko said. “… What we are finding in our eye tracking studies is — no — that’s not the case.”

The project, titled “Collaborative Research: GeoGaze: Gaze-Driven Adaptive Multimedia to Augment Geoscience Learning for Neurodiverse Learners,” will involve two studies, each enlisting 200 UF and Santa Fe College students. Study one will investigate students’ eye movement patterns while viewing a geoscience presentation on sea level rise and examine the different levels of learners’ working memory capacity to identify the best visual attention strategies needed to support their learning. Study two will then leverage these findings to build and optimize the machine learning algorithm and the actual GeoGaze technology with a large sample of postsecondary students viewing geoscience content.

Antonenko shared that the team hopes the AI-powered technology will advance the science of adaptive learning and help educators everywhere to provide students with needed personalized learning support in real-time.

“It’s important to individualize learning so when the time comes for us to actually pay attention to some information on the screen, which we do individually, we want to make sure that every student is supported based on their unique blend of individual differences in attention and cognition,” Antonenko said. “So, to say that students who need more support are in fact supported, and if we can have a technology that helps provide that support — well even better.”

The project is expected to be completed in 2024.

Jonathan Martin

Jonathan Martin, Ph.D. 

Kara Dawson

Kara Dawson, Ph.D. 

Albert Ritzhaupt

Albert Ritzhaupt, Ph.D. 

Marc Pomplun

Marc Pomplun, Ph.D.