NSF Grant Helps Institute’s Fellows Study Wandering Minds in STEM Classes

Author: Bill Schmitt

James Brockmole James Brockmole

A research collaboration involving two scholars in Notre Dame’s Department of Psychology that seeks to combat student inattentiveness in STEM learning has captured the attention of the National Science Foundation (NSF), receiving a three-year grant totaling $550,000.

The work of James Brockmole, an associate professor of psychology and visual attention expert; Sidney D’Mello, an assistant professor of psychology and computer science who studies cognitive sciences; and Matthew Kloser, an expert on the pedagogy of science who directs the Notre Dame Center for STEM Education in the Institute for Educational Initiatives, are part of a research effort to fight the problem called mind wandering.

Sidney D'Mello Sidney D’Mello

Studies have determined that the problem is rampant among high school students in the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) disciplines, risking a waste of time and talent.

D’Mello, as principal investigator under the NSF grant, will team with Kloser (faculty adviser), Brockmole (co-principal investigator), and off-campus colleagues to design, build, and test an intelligent learning system that automatically detects and responds to a student’s attentional state in real time. Both Kloser and D’Mello are also IEI fellows.

“Combating mind-wandering in this way can increase attentiveness, comprehension, and learning gains,” said D’Mello in describing the project, which is called “Attention-Aware Cyberlearning to Detect and Combat Inattentiveness during Learning.”

“It’s been estimated that students zone out about 30-40 percent of the time when they’re reading instructional materials or viewing online lectures.”

The grant will support a unique, interdisciplinary blend of basic and applied research in attention, learning, affect, eye-training, mental-state estimation, and computational modeling, D’Mello and Kloser said.

A cyberlearning technology already used by some biology teachers—including a graduate of the Institute’s Alliance for Catholic Education (ACE) teacher formation initiative—relies on a student-computer dialogue. The researchers aim to build upon that interaction to design “an attention-aware learning technology that detects and combats wandering minds,” Kloser said.

The team is focused not only on the national interest represented by NSF funding and the enrichment of STEM learning for the 21st century, but on local community interests, as well. Their research will be conducted in the ninth-grade biology classrooms of the Penn-Harris-Madison school district, located close to Notre Dame’s campus.

Originally published at iei.nd.edu.