Students enhance learning with Betty’s Brain software
Learning enhanced by interacting with inquisitive avatar
By Jamie McGee
Studying the causes and effects of climate change, sixth-graders at Meigs Middle Magnet School put together a causal map on their computer screen to teach an avatar named Betty all about it. They’re adjusting their model as they go, until Betty masters the concepts.
The software system, called Betty’s Brain, was developed by Vanderbilt University computer engineers and is being used this year in classrooms at Meigs as well as West End Middle School to help students learn concepts by teaching and by using technology that engages them and assesses their understanding in real time.
“Alot of learning happens through social interactions,”said Gautam Biswas, a Vanderbilt professor who has led the development of Betty’s Brain. “What we wanted to do in our computer-based environment was to try to simulate some of the social interactions that help in learning and provide more engagement in learning.”
If students don’t create an accurate causal map and Betty fails her assessment, students refer to tutorials on each phase of the process and correct their work. The interactive component gives students an alternative to textbooks and more experience with technology. In addition to climate change, Betty’s Brain has programs that study body temperature regulation and allow students to create traffic simulations.
As more students use Betty’s Brain, the program’s creators can study how students are most successful from it, find out what roadblocks exist, and adjust the software and improve the results.
Biswas began working on the early versions of Betty’s Brain in the early 2000s and began studying its classroom results in 2004, with research funded by the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Education.
The goal is for Betty’s Brain to be used as a supplement for teachers’ instructions as well as offer teachers regular data on what concepts the class is struggling with so they can address misunderstandings as they develop. Additionally, Biswas said his team would like the program to help students recognize and develop learning strategies that they can use beyond Betty’s Brain.
“We never claim technology is going to solve all the education problems, but it’s a tool that provides lots more detail and specific information for the teacher, so the teacher can address it in the classroom,” Biswas said.
James Parsons, a teacher at Meigs, has been using Betty’s Brain as a teaching tool since 2008. The causal maps of climate change help lay the foundation for students to work on projects in which they present real-world solutions to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
“When you learn something and then teach it to someone else, you learn it much more fully than if it’s just taught to you, which is the whole idea of this system,” Parsons said. “They are having to synthesize the information and build something with it. It’s engaging them on a whole different level.”
And, according to the students at Meigs, it has helped them master the climate change concepts they will rely on to explain their greenhouse gas solutions.
“It’s more fun,” said sixth-grader Mae Herbert. “We’re teaching her, and that’s part of us learning.”