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White House names Beverly Woolf a Presidential Innovation Fellow

President Barack Obama's office recently named Research Professor Beverly Woolf a Presidential Innovation Fellow (PIF) for 2013, recognizing her leadership in designing software tutors that respond to a student's mood and personal learning pace, for example, to dramatically improve lesson effectiveness.

Woolf's work combines artificial intelligence, computer network technology and multimedia features in digital tutoring software for teaching mathematics according to individual students' needs. She attended a ceremony at the White House on June 21 to accept the fellowship.

President Obama and his administration launched the PIF program in 2012 to bridge the gap between the private and public sectors and to bring talented innovators into government to solve challenges of national importance, program leaders say. "The program is about improving the way things are done."

PIF projects are selected based on their potential to "save lives, save taxpayer money and fuel American job growth." Fellows are "doers and change agents" who have shown their ability to accomplish great things in an agile and collaborative way. Each project has its own timeline, but fellowships generally last six to 13 months and involve working in Washington D.C. for at least a few weeks. 

Woolf says of her fellowship, "I intend to work towards making education a civil right for all people and to create systemic, broad-based changes in social-educational movements that will be sustained over the long period. I want to provide opportunities for all people, including populations poorly served by the traditional educational system, so they can learn rapidly and form new learning communities. I have been a change agent in education technology for years and am eager to move our country forward towards groundbreaking activities in education."

In recent years, Woolf, Ivon Arroyo and colleagues at UMass Amherst have created intelligent and emotionally perceptive teaching software for grade school children, notably one called Wayang Outpost. It features a friendly tutor and other animated characters that interact one-on-one with users like a personal trainer. It uses artificial intelligence to evaluate their skills and knowledge in real time, then adjusts to offer personalized strategies to address knowledge gaps and provide advice for tackling difficult problems.

Wayang Outpost has improved student performance on standardized test scores by an average 10 percent, a critical difference for low-achieving and other students who often struggle with math. It has been used worldwide to improve students' early relationship with mathematics, keeping later career options open.

Woolf says, "Some of my goals for this fellowship are to make education data-rich and to develop Internet-scale experimentation that balances students' learning across all environments as a result of distributed technology. I am committed to quality global instruction, freely available for all students, using educational data mining for formative assessment and immediate feedback about how students can improve their performance."

She supports enhanced government-academic-industry cooperation to lower the cost of such technology, provide effective evaluation, develop sophisticated modules that allow multiple authors to collaborate on problems and examples for other systems, and to increase student engagement through use of graphics, simulations and visualizations.

Woolf is one of the 43 Americans named as new Presidential Innovation Fellows (PIF). Dr. Woolf will work on the Open Data Initiatives during her term as a PIF.

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