It’s around high school that girls start to fall behind in math. Up to that point, they do just as well and are just as interested, generally, but at about fifth grade, our school system’s approach to math tends to sort of stop doing it for them. Girls at that age respond well to very attentive, active math teachers, encouragement, positive reinforcement, and high levels of feedback. So when a group of researchers at UMass-Amherst set out to develop a computer tutor program that would give girls the extra support they need to stay interested and confident in math class, they focused on this age group, and they tried to make a program that could perceive and respond to the emotions of its subjects with great accuracy.

The result is a program called Wayang Outpost – being tested out next month – that assigns personalized computer tutors to individual students (tutor “characters” come in white, black, and Hispanic), uses a camera sensor to gauge the student’s mood, reads into how the student is gripping the mouse, encourages, gives constant voice-feedback, offers hints when it deems the student emotionally ready to accept help, and occasionally points out that practice is an important part of learning.

“Not only [do the program’s e-tutors] help many students feel better about their math skills, they lead to more time spent on the problems, and more enjoyable time. So they really learn the concepts being presented in each module at their own pace,” says Beverly Woolf, one of the University of Massachusetts Amherst computer scientists who developed the program.  Sounds a whole lot better than memorization and classroom-wide drills, where right-brainers are at a higher risk of being left behind.

The software’s camera sensor is surprisingly sensitive – it’s able to determine whether the student is feeling happy, stressed, anxious, bored, frustrated. Incredibly, the computer program gets it right about 70 to 80 percent of the time, enabling it to give mood-appropriate feedback to the individual student – a level of attentiveness that’s just not a reality for most students in large classrooms across the country today.

In addition to tailoring to each student, the program bases many of its practice problem premises on real-life science situations. A whole slew of its characters, in fact, are based on a real NSF team of biologists studying orangutans in Borneo (picture displayed is of one such computer tutor NSF scientist). The hope, presumably, is not only that this real-life-application approach will make the math feel more relevant and accessible to girls, but also that it will plant the idea in their young minds that women, too, can become scientists.

Which is exactly why I’m calling attention to this study in a green forum. For all the data showing that women suffer disproportionately from climate change, global warming science is still largely a man’s arena. Check out this picture of the IPCC delegation, right after they won the Nobel in 2007. How many female faces do you see? Right. And how many male? Right.

“We want to improve students’ relationship with math early, which can be so important to their career choices. Once you close off math, you close off most of the sciences, as well,” says Woolf.