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Research and Innovation

NC State, NSF Unveil Institute Focused on Artificial Intelligence and the Future of Education

A five-year, $20 million grant from NSF will help create new tools to radically improve learning.

A portrait of NC State professor James Lester, against a stylized background.
James Lester, Distinguished University Professor of Computer Science and principal investigator of the new NSF AI Institute for Engaged Learning.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) has announced that North Carolina State University will lead a new research initiative aimed at creating artificial intelligence (AI) tools to advance human learning and education for a wide variety of audiences.

“We have been designing, developing and implementing AI technologies for education for many years,” says James Lester, principal investigator of the new institute and Distinguished University Professor of Computer Science at NC State. “The new NSF AI Institute for Engaged Learning will leverage our work, and that of our collaborators, to develop new tools that radically improve human learning and education.”

The institute will be supported by a five-year, $20 million grant from NSF. The investment is part of a broader effort by NSF to advance our understanding of AI technologies and how they can drive innovation to address real-world challenges.

We’re proud to partner on this important project that has the potential to transform education and learning.

“We appreciate NSF’s recognition of NC State’s leadership in artificial intelligence, and greatly appreciate their support for the new AI Institute for Engaged Learning,” said Chancellor Randy Woodson. “We’re proud to partner with the NSF and collaborators on this important project that has the potential to transform education and learning.”

In addition to NC State, the new institute will include researchers from Indiana University, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Vanderbilt University and the educational non-profit organization Digital Promise.

The institute will focus on three areas that complement each other.

First, the institute will create AI platforms that generate interactive story-based problem scenarios that foster communication, teamwork and creativity as part of the learning process.

Second, the institute will create AI characters capable of communicating with students through their speech, facial expression, gesture, gaze and posture. These characters, or “agents,” will be designed using state-of-the-art advances in AI research to foster interactions that engage students effectively in the learning process.

Lastly, the institute will create a sophisticated analytics framework that analyzes data from students in order to make the tools truly interactive. In other words, the system will be able to customize educational scenarios and processes to help students learn, based on information the system collects from the conversations, gaze, facial expressions, gestures, and postures of students as they interact with each other, with teachers, and with the technology itself.

Researchers involved with the institute will be working with a broad range of stakeholders, including schools, museums and non-profit organizations. This collaborative approach is designed to ensure that the institute creates tools can be used to meet educational goals while also ensuring that its AI-driven learning environments are ethically designed and promote diversity, equity and inclusion.

“All of our activities in the new institute will include a strong focus on ethics,” says Lester, who also serves as director of NC State’s Center for Educational Informatics (CEI). “We create effective educational tools that are informed by considerations of fairness, accountability, transparency, trust and privacy.

Our work has demonstrated that AI tools can be tremendously valuable in supporting education.

“Our work at the CEI has demonstrated that AI tools can be tremendously valuable in supporting education. But they do not exist in a vacuum, and we know how important it is to ensure that we are working with teachers, students and other community members to develop tools that meet their expectations in terms of safety, respect, and privacy.”

For more on NSF’s investments in AI, see the NSF Science Matters article, “Expanding the geography of innovation: NSF AI Research Institutes 2021.”

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