STEM Education

UC Irvine Project to Test Embedded Conversations in Kid Vids

An upcoming children's show co-created by a University of California, Irvine physics professor will serve as a testbed to see how interactive videos could boost children's understanding of science. "Elinor Wonders Why," which will launch on PBS KIDS in September 2020, will be at the heart of the research project. The idea is to use an "intelligent conversational agent application" -- embedded conversation -- to allow the kids to speak with the main character. Elinor will ask questions and respond to their answers as she and her friends solve everyday science mysteries in each show. The UCI experiment will specifically focus on three episodes.

The project was funded with a $300,000, two-year Advancing Informal STEM Learning program grant from the National Science Foundation. It's being led by UCI School of Education researchers, who will help develop the interactive videos.

According to a university article, there will be two iterative phases. In the first, storyboard, conversation, follow-up prompts, video scripts and creation of a mobile application will be field tested with 20 children to improve the embedded conversation function.

In the second, a pilot test will engage 120 children, each of whom will watch the video one of four different ways in a randomized control trial. One group will watch the episode with the embedded conversation function. The second group will include a human partner, rather than the virtual character, to go through the script dialogue. The third group will watch with "pseudo-interaction," where Elinor will ask questions but doesn't attempt to understand or personally respond to answers. And the final group will watch the episode with no special dialog.

The research team will look at the benefits of automated kinds of engagement and compare them to conversing with another person while watching the video. The study was approved by UCI's Institutional Review Board, according to the university, "with the strictest attention to the confidentiality and privacy of participants and their data."

"The goal of this project is to amplify the educational value of watching TV by making it more interactive," said Mark Warschauer, a UCI professor of education and one of the project's principal investigators. "By integrating a conversational agent as a virtual character in a science-oriented video, we can examine whether and in what ways young children's engagement, attention, communication strategies, perceptions and learning are affected. This project will provide a comprehensive evaluation of the feasibility and potential of incorporating them into screen media to foster preschoolers' STEM learning and engagement."

Warschauer said he expected the project to generate "groundbreaking findings on the use of conversational agents to enhance young children's informal STEM learning and [to] lay the foundation for a new genre of science shows." For example, video viewing could be "transformed into a more dynamic educational experience, where children are actively engaged in observation, prediction, pattern finding and problem solving."

Elinor Wonders Why program was created by UCI physics professor Daniel Whiteson and Jorge Cham of PHD Comics. The show is being developed as part of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and PBS Ready To Learn Initiative with funding from the U.S. Department of Education.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal and Campus Technology. She can be reached at dian@dischaffhauser.com or on Twitter @schaffhauser.

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