Inq-ITS: A Revolutionary Online Assessment and Learning Environment

Janice Gobert, Co-Founder & CEO
There is a critical need to develop scientific literacy and reasoning skills in the knowledge-based economy of the 21st century. Students must master critical thinking skills and go beyond rote learning. To this end, students should be encouraged to develop interest in science. However, teachers and in turn, students face several challenges in trying to meet the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). One very fruitful approach to these issues lies in leveraging technology and computational approaches for scalable assessment and learning of the NGSS. Inq-ITS (Inquiry Intelligent Tutoring System) began as a project at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in 2007 and continues at Rutgers University Graduate School of Education, funded since its inception by the National Science Foundation and the US Department of Education. The goal was to develop an online learning environment where students learn to engage in powerful ideas and hone intellectual skills. “We sought to utilize cutting-edge learning science research and revolutionary data mining techniques to engage students in virtual science labs with real-time assessments in order to optimize learning,” states Janice Gobert, co-founder and CEO of Apprendis, a spinoff company that is commercializing Inq-ITS.

Inq-ITS is a learning platform with simulations for physical, life, and earth science, aligned with NGSS. Instead of doing multiple choice questions, students engage in inquiry with scientific phenomena in a dynamic, interactive manner, and run experiments: forming questions, collecting, and analyzing their data to address their claims, and communicate their findings. Inq-ITS utilizes complex, patented algorithms based on machine learning to assess students and generate real-time formative reports on both classroom-wide and individual student performance. Rex the dinosaur, a virtual inquiry coach, provides personalized help for students facing challenges as they conduct inquiry. Inq-Blotter is a mobile alert system that updates immediately and issues actionable alerts for teachers in real time, about which students are struggling on specific practices and their respective sub-components. This is used to differentiate classroom instruction, or provide support to individual students.

Inq-ITS is the first solution that provides real-time performance assessment for instructional practices using data-mined techniques that will permit scalable automatic assessment of the full complement of NGSS practices

“A student’s progress is captured throughout the year to create a profile containing details about their classroom performance, which can be used as a reference when he/she moves to the next grade,” states Gobert. Additionally, Inq-ITS enables students to perform hands-on experiments in science class more systematically. Furthermore, students, including those on Individualized educational programs and English language-learners, have displayed exceptional improvement in classroom performance and on state science assessments due to Inq-ITS, claims teachers.

Since conventional assessment techniques like lab reports depend on students’ writing skills, it is not always reflective of students’ knowledge. For example, a student proficient in science but lacking the ability to articulate his/her knowledge in writing will get a “false negative” assessment. Conversely, a student relying on rote learning to generate a lab report, without deep understanding will receive a “false positive” assessment. Due to lack of a system that accurately grades students based on their actual knowledge, many talented individuals will go unrecognized, which is problematic for an economy such as the U.S. that desperately needs STEM workers. The Inq-ITS team is now implementing natural language processing techniques into their platform to be used in conjunction with their existing data mining algorithms. This will provide the capacity for teacher alerts and Rex support when the student’s actions do not match what they wrote. “Inq- ITS is the first solution that provides real-time performance assessment for instructional practices using data-mined techniques that will permit scalable automatic assessment of the full complement of NGSS practices,” states Gobert. Inq-ITS is being utilized in 20 states across the U.S. as well as in Europe, and there are plans to expand the learning platform to cover both elementary and high school syllabi.