NSF Grant Helps Institute's Fellows Pay Attention to Wandering Minds in STEM Classes

September 09, 2015Bill Schmitt

A research collaboration including two fellows of Notre Dame’s Institute for Educational Initiatives will seek to combat student inattentiveness in STEM learning. The project captured the attention of the National Science Foundation (NSF), which recently announced it will support the work of fellows Sidney D’Mello and Matthew Kloser along with Psychology professor James Brockmole with a three-year grant totaling $550,000.

D’Mello, a cognitive sciences scholar in the University’s Department of Psychology, Brockmole, an expert in visual attention, and Kloser, an expert on the pedagogy of science who directs the Notre Dame Center for STEM Education in the Institute, are part of a research effort to fight the problem called mind wandering (MW).

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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 (PI) under the NSF grant, will team with Kloser (faculty advisor)—as well as Notre Dame psychologist James Brockmole (co-PI) 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.

“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,” D’Mello said.

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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, according to D’Mello and Kloser.

A cyberlearning technology already used by some biology teachers—including a graduate of the Institutes’ 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 Institute fellows and their colleagues are 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 9th grade biology classrooms of a school district, called Penn-Harris-Madison, located close to Notre Dame’s campus.

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More information: Bill Schmitt, Institute for Educational Initiatives, wschmitt@nd.edu / 574-631-3893

9/8/2015