October 14, 2005: ''PC as Personal Companion for Computer Studies'' by Prof. Barbara Di Eugenio

Release Date: October 14, 2005
Contact: Paul Francuch, (312) 996-3457, francuch@uic.edu

Can a personal computer be programmed to behave like a student and work with a human classmate to solve difficult problems in computer science?

And, can this computer student "peer" find acceptance among female undergraduates, whose enrollment numbers in computer science are on the decline?

Barbara Di Eugenio, an associate professor of computer science at the University of Illinois at Chicago, thinks so. She and her colleagues Pamela Jordan and Sandra Katz, research associates at the University of Pittsburgh's Learning Research and Development Center, will split a $520,000, three-year National Science Foundation grant to produce a program they call a "dialog agent" that will think, react and speak like college a student -- but also ultimately know answers to questions to help keep the student-computer interaction on a productive track.

Di Eugenio, Jordan and Katz will collaborate with psychology professor David Allbritton of DePaul University. The project also has the endorsement of UIC's new Learning Sciences Research Institute.

While many software programs, such as search engines, can seem amazingly intuitive, Di Eugenio said the new dialog agent she's developing will need to be even more sophisticated in the way it interacts with users.

"If the computer has to interact with students, it really has to know the answers already," she said. "But we want to set parameters so the computer acts like a student peer. The computer may know everything, but it won't say everything right away, because it wants to encourage the student to participate."

Educational psychology research shows that the peer method is very effective for studying and solving problems. Computer science students will be given problems to solve together. These peer interactions will be videotaped and analyzed to determine which exchanges promote effective knowledge sharing and explanations. The language used in dialogs will be analyzed for what's natural in conversations. After a significant sampling of dialogs is studied, software models will be written and then tested on students for effectiveness.

"You need to know what a computer should say in response to what a student says at some point," said Di Eugenio. The computer will monitor the conversation, almost like an external observer, watching to see if the dialog is heading down the wrong course and reinforcing errors. "Software can steer the conversation onto more productive paths," she said.

The operation would work somewhat like today's internet chat, only the "chat" would be limited to the subject of computer science, and your "buddy" would be the computer, not another person.

Di Eugenio, Jordan and Katz hope their dialog agent program will find special attraction among women, who are a small minority in the field of computer science. The goal is not only to attract more women to the field, but also to retain those who enter computer science as college freshmen.

A 2004 report by the U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics shows 1984-85 as the peak academic year for women earning bachelor's degrees in computer and information sciences at 37 percent. By the last year cited in the study, 2001-02, women had dropped to just below 28 percent of the total.

"For many women, it's like an alien culture. They often feel like they don't belong in computer science," said Di Eugenio of the male-dominated computer field.

"If the computer can act as a non-threatening peer, then maybe women will find it more helpful."

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