By Joshua Preston | Oct. 1, 2019 |
Georgia Tech’s newest AI in the classroom, VERA, is debuting as part of the institute’s Introduction to Biology course this fall semester, signaling a significant advancement for artificial intelligence in science education.
VERA, or Virtual Ecological Research Assistant, is designed to enable users to construct conceptual models of ecological systems and run interactive simulations of these models through a web browser. The AI agent provides a virtual lab that allows users to explore ecological systems and perform “what if” experiments to either explain an existing ecological system or attempt to predict the outcome of future changes to one.
“Students don’t need extensive scientific knowledge or programming and math skills to use VERA,” said Sungeun An, human-centered computing Ph.D. student at Georgia Tech and lead developer of the AI system. “They can build a conceptual model with simple visual cues on the computer screen, such as dragging elements or selecting input options.”
Students can get started on virtual science experiments quickly with VERA, but learning the system – even one with a fairly intuitive web interface and designed to foster a curiosity for scientific discovery – may still require some help, said An.
To this end, the Design & Intelligence Lab – Georgia Tech’s leading space for AI education research – is using the Jill Watson AI framework to create a virtual teaching assistant that can answer student questions about how to use VERA.
“Leveraging the Jill Watson virtual TA and VERA research assistant together is a powerful demonstration of how to scale technology to serve more populations and provide access to the world’s scientific knowledge,” said Ashok Goel, professor of Interactive Computing and director of the DILab.
Combining the strength of the two AI agents is part of an intentional approach to rethinking instructional design for online learning. VERA is meant to be used anywhere by anyone interested in science exploration, so making it as accessible as possible is key to the system’s adoption, according to researchers. The biology course VERA is being used in is an on-campus class.
Researchers have also made the system open access on the web. Anyone with an internet connection can go to Ask Jill (the virtual TA) on Slack for help on using VERA and get a quick understanding of how the AI operates. In a new video series, viewers get a short demo of VERA in a scenario on dealing with rampant kudzu growth in the Southeastern United States. Emily Weigel, one of the instructors for the biology course using VERA, co-hosts the series.
One of VERA’s defining features is the ecology database it uses. The AI Agent is powered by the Encyclopedia of Life, a free, open, multilingual, digital repository of curated information on nearly 2 million species and maintained by the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History. VERA has a presence right on the EOL’s homepage.
“People using VERA have access to the EOL and can test a hypothesis using countless organisms, make as many changes to variables as they want, and study the effects on any ecosystem through real-time modeling,” said An. “This is a unique opportunity that doesn’t exist anywhere else.”
The research team has plans to eventually make VERA a central component for a collaborative space for scientific discovery. The space will be focused on sparking science discussions and promoting users’ ecology models and experimental approaches.
Learn more about VERA.