Student news and notes for Fall 2018 Learning Connections

Student News

Kids connect with robot reading partners

By Chris Barncard, University Communications

Kids learn better with a friend. They’re more enthusiastic and understand more if they dig into a subject with a companion, previous research has shown.

But what if that companion is artificial?

Researchers at UW–Madison built a robot named Minnie to serve as a reading buddy to middle school kids. And a study showed that Minnie’s new friends grew more excited about books and more attached to the robot over two weeks of reading together.

Robot Minnie“After one interaction, the kids were generally telling us that, sure, it was nice to have someone to read with,” says Joseph Michaelis, a graduate student with the School of Education’s No. 1-ranked Department of Educational Psychology. “But by the end of two weeks, they’re talking about how the robot was funny and silly and afraid, and how they’d come home looking forward to seeing it again.”

In August, Michaelis and computer sciences professor Bilge Mutlu published their work with Minnie in the journal Science Robotics.

“Most interesting to me is that we know social learning strengthens interest and motivation,” says Michaelis, who taught high school science before returning to graduate school. “A lot of kids who don’t like reading, in particular, point out that it’s an isolated activity, and people just sort of accept that isolation. But it can be demotivating and harder to learn and understand in that situation.”

The researchers designed a two-week reading program, including 25 books representing a range of reading skill and story complexity. They programmed Minnie to be an interested listener. The children in the study read aloud to the robot, which could track their progress in the book and react to the story — every few pages or so, especially during important moments in the plot — with one of hundreds of preprogrammed comments.

Michaelis and Mutlu, whose work is supported by the National Science Foundation, see Minnie helping to spur otherwise reluctant students on in all sorts of academic tasks, and have already begun testing a version of the robot that shares in science studies.

“This idea is in its infancy. But now we know if you carefully design this, it can actually sustain interaction and heighten kids’ emotional experience with reading,” Mutlu says. “That’s a huge achievement.”

Several media outlets, including CNN and Popular Science, reported on the study.

Doctoral student Wicker knows university experience from the inside

By Doug Erickson, University Communications

For years, Paris Wicker’s job was to help students succeed at college. Now she’s taking her own advice.

Wicker, who started as a doctoral student with the School of Education this fall, worked the last decade in admissions and student affairs at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin. When she left Lawrence in August, she was serving as associate dean of students for student transition, support and persistence.  

Paris Wicker“Now I’m the one in transition,” says Wicker, a Chicago native. “I need to keep reminding myself of all those things I told students time after time.”

Wicker is a Ph.D. fellow in a new program for doctoral students across three departments: sociology, educational policy studies, and educational leadership and policy analysis. The program is for students interested in drawing from sociological perspectives to research and teach about issues of race and inequality in education.

In her work experience, Wicker says she saw many students struggle with mental health concerns. She plans to research trauma and mental health-informed practices within higher education, especially in regards to retaining students of color.

When asked why she chose UW–Madison for her doctoral work, Wicker says: “It has such a strong research component, and the School of Education is always among the highest ranked in the country.”

Two from School receive Fulbright-Hays
Doctoral Dissertation Research Abroad Awards

Seven students from across UW–Madison — including two from the School of Education — were selected in October as recipients of the highly competitive Fulbright-Hays Doctoral Dissertation Research Abroad (DDRA) Awards.

Award winnersUW–Madison boasts the highest number of DDRA awardees of any university in the nation for 2018. Fulbright-Hays DDRA Awards provide funds to doctoral students to conduct research outside the United States in foreign languages and area studies for up to 12 months. The awards are funded through the U.S. Department of Education’s International and Foreign Language Education office.

The two students from the School of Education who received these awards are:

Diana Famakinwa, advised by Lesley Bartlett, Educational Policy Studies. Famakinwa will spend eight months examining the engagement of the African diaspora in the development and internationalization of higher education in Nigeria and its implications for Nigeria’s place in the “global knowledge economy.”

Choua Xiong, advised by Stacey Lee, Educational Policy Studies. Xiong’s dissertation examines how HMoob (Hmong) youth navigate exclusionary educational practices of citizenship and belonging in Phetchabun Province, Thailand. Xiong will spend 12 months observing and participating in youth activities inside and outside of school spaces focusing on how students, teachers, and the HMoob community talk about culture, national belonging, and citizenship rights and responsibilities.

Around the School … 

Ellie Bruecker, a doctoral student with the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis, is becoming known as an expert on issues related to the federal government’s free application for financial aid, or FAFSA, form. In October, she spoke with two media outlets covering FAFSA-related topics. She was interviewed by Inside Higher Ed for a report highlighting a new “myStudentAid” mobile app that’s designed to help more applicants finish the application. And that same month she spoke with the USA Today Network-Wisconsin chain of newspapers about how large numbers of high school seniors across Wisconsin are missing a chance for college aid by not filling out the FAFSA form.

Gabbi Taschwer Gabbie Taschwer (left) and two fellow members of the 2018 USA Water Ski Show Team became the first female trio ever to perform a triple helicopter spin in competition. The record-setting feat occurred Sept. 8 at the Show Ski World Championships in Ontario, Canada. The three sailed off a ski jump, spun 360 degrees in the air, and stuck the landing. “It was such a thrill and an honor to ski with people I’ve looked up to all my life,” says Taschwer, who is set to graduate this winter with a bachelor’s degree from the School of Education’s Department of Kinesiology.

Rui Li in September was awarded a prestigious Doctoral Dissertation Grant from The International Research Foundation (TIRF) for English Language Education. Li is a Ph.D. candidate with the Department of Curriculum and Instruction. She is now one of 130 grantees from 26 different countries who have received this award since 2002. Her project that’s being funded is titled, “Multimodal Learning and Communication Through Transnational Digital Storytelling.”

Brett Nachman was elected in August to the national board of directors for the honor society of Phi Kappa Phi. Nachman, a Ph.D. student with the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis, will serve as the graduate student representative on the board for the next two years. 
© 2019 Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System • Please contact the School of Education External Relations Office with questions, issues or comments about this site.