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U of M Tapped to Help Develop Digital Tutoring Software for STEM Students and the U.S. Military

For release: February 24, 2012
For press information, contact Gabrielle Maxey, 901/678-2843

The Office of Naval Research (ONR) has selected the University of Memphis as one of four academic and industry teams to develop affordable digital tutoring software to improve the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) knowledge of middle and high school students.

As winners of ONR’s STEM Grand Challenge, the teams will produce intelligent tutoring technology that ultimately will be used to enhance the STEM skills of students, sailors, and Marines while helping to prepare the future naval science and engineering work force to address emerging challenges to the nation’s defense.

A team of 10 U of M faculty members and five psychology and computer sciences graduate students will participate in the two-year project.

The selection of the four teams was based on the scientific and technical merits of their proposals in addressing ONR’s STEM research goals. In addition to the U of M, winning proposals were submitted by Arizona State University, the University of Massachusetts, and Raytheon BBN Technologies.

“We are excited about our potential contribution to STEM education,” said Dr. Xiangen Hu, a professor in the U of M Department of Psychology and the Institute for Intelligent Systems. “This is a challenge to us, and at the same time is an opportunity for the University to be one of the leading research institutes in developing advanced learning technologies.”

“I look to these teams of researchers and their unique approaches with intelligent tutoring systems to help the Navy, Marine Corps, and our nation in delivering a steady work force of talented scientists and engineers,” said Rear Adm. Matthew L. Klunder, chief of naval research.

The $8 million initiative is designed to spur innovation and creativity in the advancement of cost-effective digital tutors that tailor instruction to the individual needs and learning pace of students. The software systems mimic one-to-one interactions between teachers and students and are expected to improve student academic performance by two or more letter grades in a short amount of time. 

In the first phase, each team will receive up to $1.5 million to develop a digital tutor that will provide instruction in STEM-related topics. The range of approaches includes developing techniques for creating realistic and supportive student-tutor interactions, creating analytic and modeling methods for adapting to students’ learning capabilities, producing methods for mapping information to an instructional curriculum, and crafting techniques for maintaining students' active engagement.

At the end of the first phase, the four teams will be judged on how well the tutors improve students’ knowledge retention, reasoning, and problem-solving skills. One or two teams will be selected for phase two, which provides another year of funding, up to $1 million per team, to produce a system that can be used to educate sailors and Marines.

The second phase of the program will transition the best digital tutoring systems to naval schoolhouses and laptops. In addition to other efforts the Navy is exploring, the STEM Challenge will reduce training time and instructor costs while increasing the technical skills of recruits, sailors, and Marines in the digital age.   

Intelligent tutors, or digital tutors, use artificial intelligence systems to evaluate students’ skills and knowledge in real time. The systems then adjust the subsequent tutoring methods and problem sets to address the knowledge gaps of each individual student.

More information on the STEM Grand Challenge is online at

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