Northern Illinois University

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Keith Millis
Keith Millis

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News Release

Contact: Tom Parisi, NIU Office of Public Affairs
(815) 753-3635

November 27, 2007

NIU researchers get $2 million grant to create
online game teaching scientific inquiry

DeKalb, Ill. — Top secret intelligence reports indicate aliens have infiltrated the human race with plans to conquer the planet.

Using advanced technology, the aliens can appear as humans. For decades they have published compromised research in various fields and used advertising blitzes to turn humans into mindless consumers.

Your assignment, if you choose to accept it, is to identify faulty research and deceitful researchers, thereby exposing the alien creatures and their diabolical plan.

Sound like a new video game? In a sense, it is.

You’ve just read the synopsis for Operation ARIES, an online educational game being developed by researchers at Northern Illinois University and several other top institutions. The aim is to create a learning tool that will teach scientific inquiry and critical thinking skills to students by leveraging the so-called “thumb generation’s” passion for video games.

The U.S. Department of Education awarded $2 million to NIU over four years for development of the educational game. Keith Millis, an NIU professor of psychology, leads a team of 11 researchers on the project, including five other NIU faculty members.

“Students love to play video games,” says Millis, a cognitive psychologist who specializes in reading comprehension. “We need to harness that interest and use it in the classroom.”

Operation ARIES, an acronym for Acquiring Research Investigative and Evaluative Skills, will make use of a computer-animated “intelligent tutor,” powered by software with components of artificial intelligence. The tutor will teach vital concepts of scientific inquiry, hold conversations with students and immerse them in engaging problems that incorporate aspects of psychology, sociology, chemistry and biology.

Led by the animated tutor, or “guide agent,” each student will evaluate case studies in search of faulty science and teach the skills he or she learns to an animated apprentice agent, a strategy that promotes deep learning. Students also must interrogate aliens, an application of critical thinking skills.

Points will be awarded based on each user’s progress, giving the learning sessions the feel of a serious game.

“It takes time to learn these skills, and we’re taking seriously the challenge of trying to keep students engaged and interested over a course of weeks or more,” Millis says. “We want to make the game intellectually challenging, while at the same time fun and engaging.”

The project responds to a serious crisis for educators and policymakers: American students are not learning scientific inquiry skills. In 2005, fewer than one in five 12th graders nationwide scored at the proficient level in science. U.S. science education lags well behind other nations.

“While packaged as a game, what we’re really building here is a sophisticated tutoring system that eventually will be accessible to high school and college students online,” Millis says. “We think it will be effective. The tutoring system will employ well-established learning strategies, including reflection, reciprocal teaching, self explanation, active response and dialogue interactions.”

The researchers hope the educational game will spur interest in scientific fields, but students stand to gain in other ways as well.

“We’re lacking courses that teach critical thinking skills, particularly in high school but also at the college level,” says Co-Project Director Anne Britt, an NIU cognitive psychologist with expertise in advanced-literacy skills, such as argument and comprehension.

“One of our challenges is to see whether the scientific inquiry and critical-thinking skills taught by Operation ARIES can be generalized across disciplines, from biology to chemistry, for example,” she says. “But we also hope these critical thinking skills will transfer to everyday life. These skills are necessary to help consumers look discerningly at advertisements that use pseudo-scientific language or even to aid voters as they scrutinize the claims of politicians.”

Intelligent tutoring systems are known to be effective. ARIES will provide for one-on-one tutoring. The system will keep track of what the student knows and follow the “Goldilocks Principle,” presenting new problems that are neither too easy nor too hard.

“Intelligent tutoring systems are not as good as one-to-one human tutoring, but they have been shown to boost student performance levels by a grade level,” Millis says.

Millis hopes to have the educational game operational within two years and up on the Web within four years. Students at NIU will test the system. Millis thinks ARIES will hold a key advantage over standard textbooks.

“Deep learning requires an effortful process of being engaged in the materials and using them. And with Operation ARIES, students will be required to apply what they learn.” Millis says. “Using a textbook doesn’t do that.”

Other NIU co-project directors include Joe Magliano and Katja Wiemer, both professors in the Department of Psychology. Amanda Durik and Patty Wallace, also from the Department of Psychology, and Jon Miller, a professor of biological sciences, will write content for the tutor.

Co-project directors at other institutions include psychologists Art Graesser of the Institute for Intelligent Systems at the University of Memphis and Claremont McKenna College Professor Diane Halpern, former president of the American Psychological Association. Other research team members include Kimberly Lawler-Sagarin, a professor of chemistry at Elmhurst College; Danielle McNamara from the University of Memphis, and Sara Gilliam, a Ph.D. student who has won awards for her tutoring work at New Mexico State University.

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