Engineering professor creates animated science education program

An animated computer program created by Dr. Gautam Biswas, professor of computer science and computer engineering at Vanderbilt, is being used in Nashville public school classrooms to teach science to middle school students. But the teachable agent called Betty’s Brain does much more; it also teaches students how to learn.

Supported by the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Education, Dr. Biswas and his colleagues at Stanford University have shown that students learn science content much better by using Betty’s Brain. Studies show that the students also carry over that learning to new subjects, practice monitoring themselves along the way, and have fun in the process.

Using a simplified visual representation called a concept map, fifth- and sixth-grade students at Meigs Academic Magnet School teach a cartoon character named Betty about river ecosystem processes, such as the food chain, photosynthesis, and the waste cycle. Then they test her to see if she has learned her lesson. Unless the students periodically check whether Betty understands the concepts and their relations, she will refuse to take the test. In checking her, the students are really checking themselves. They are also discovering that self-monitoring is an important learning strategy that applies to all learning situations.

“In order to teach, they first have to learn,” Dr. Biswas says. “What we are trying to animate is thought. We have Betty, an animated character, on one side [of the computer screen] a shared concept map, which represents what’s in Betty’s brain (in reality it is exactly what the student has taught her). Using animation processes Betty can also illustrate how she reasons and answers questions with that information.”

Betty’s Brain is being used by 5th grade science teachers in their regular classroom activities. Although the concepts the program teaches are complex, “Using it is easy,” says sixth-grader Sam Beckham.

Teachable agents like Betty’s Brain not only facilitate student learning, they also make it enjoyable. “Students are much more motivated to monitor someone else,” Dr. Biswas says. “But in the process, they are actually monitoring themselves. It’s more entertaining for the students, and they feel a sense of responsibility. Because they are teaching her, they want her to do well.”

Dr. Biswas, whose field of expertise includes modeling and analysis of complex systems, describes himself as “an engineer or computer scientist who knows cognitive science.” He and his colleagues from the fields of cognitive science and science education are also developing software programs to teach reading to elementary school students and introductory computer science to college students.

A native of Bombay, India, Dr. Biswas earned his B.Tech. degree in electrical engineering from the Indian Institute of Technology in Bombay in 1977, and M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in computer science from Michigan State University in 1980 and 1983, respectively. He joined the Vanderbilt faculty in 1988.

For more information about Betty’s Brain, please go to