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WPI 'Thinking Cap' Study Could Improve Online Learning

WORCESTER (CBS) - It's a common phrase students hear from teachers in school: "Put your thinking cap on!" One computer science professor at Worcester Polytechnic Institute is literally doing just that. Her research project may just change how we learn at school…and eventually, at work.

Professor Erin Solovey's area of study is human-computer interaction. "I'm also interested in making interaction with any technology better, and understanding what is going on in the head of the user," she says.

Thinking cap
Thinking cap research at WPI (WBZ-TV)

At a lab at WPI in Worcester, Dr. Solovey is using a $1 million grant from the National Science Foundation to study a "thinking cap" (which looks like a swim cap with electrodes attached) that is harnessing information that will help teachers and computer program designers understand how to improve personalized computer learning.

The cap's sensors measure brain activity during tasks performed during a computer test. In this three year neuroscience study, Professor Solovey and her students, like PhD candidate Reza Moradinezhad, will gather data using the thinking cap that could change the way computer tests are designed.

The idea is not for students to wear the caps, but to use the data captured during tests in the study to improve online learning.

Professor Erin Solovey
Professor Erin Solovey (WBZ-TV)

Moradinezhad says, "So this device is to help us understand how the brain works and when we know how someone's brain works, then you can have a specialized test which can be applied to someone's specific brain activity."

The sensors register that activity as a range of colors on a diagram of the brain and move in different colors and patterns when the brain of the person being tested is focused or when the mind wanders during the test. The hope is to simulate the nuanced moments between a student and a teacher when a teacher might observe that a child or adult is spinning their wheels or just "not getting it."

WPI thinking cap
Thinking cap research at WPI (WBZ-TV)

"The teacher would pick up on those subtle cues, probably," Dr. Solovey points out, "but the computer can't pick it up. So what we're trying to do is to pick up these signals and hopefully use them to adapt the learning experience."

She also adds that this knowledge is intended to enhance the learning process – never to replace a teacher.

And, as Artificial Intelligence becomes more prevalent, workers might have robot co-workers someday who could also learn from this.

"So, if the robot can detect that the person is getting stressed and know not to bother them at that time – which is something that a human naturally does, a human can detect 'oh, that person's really stressed, I'm not going to interrupt them with this little bit of information right now' but the computer or the robot doesn't pick that up, but with this type of thing we might be able to."

Solovey adds, "This is more that we have the opportunity to learn about the brain and about learning and how it works so that we can have better experiences."

Dr. Solovey is working on the study with two other women who are Computer Science Professors at the University of Pittsburgh and Lehigh University.

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