Inquire: An Intelligent Textbook for Biology

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Title of Abstract: Inquire: An Intelligent Textbook for Biology

Name of Author: Vinay Chaudhri
Author Company or Institution: SRI International
PULSE Fellow: No
Applicable Courses: General Biology
Course Levels: Introductory Course(s)
Approaches: Material Development
Keywords: Active Reading Meta-cognitive framework Problem solving

Name, Title, and Institution of Author(s): Jeremy Roschelle, SRI International Aaron Spaulding, SRI International Britte Cheng, SRI International Louis Yarnall, SRI International Craig Heller, Stanford University

Goals and intended outcomes of the project or effort, in the context of the Vision and Change report and recommendations: Our work addresses the following recommendations for change in biology education. (1) Integrate Core Concepts and Competencies throughout the curriculum by stimulating the curiosity that students have for learning about the natural world and by integrating concepts across levels of organization and complexity to synthesize and analyze information that connects conceptual domains (2) Focus on student-centered learning by engaging students as active participants, not passive recipients, in all under-graduate biology courses, and by ensuring that undergraduate biology courses are active, outcome oriented, inquiry driven, and relevant (3) Engage the Biology Community in the implementation of Change by promoting more concept-oriented biology courses, by helping all students learn how to integrate facts into larger conceptual contexts and by creating active-learning environments for all students, even those in first year biology courses Our work addresses the following ideas suggested by students for improving biology education: (1) Less emphasis on memorization (2) More connections across the curriculum

Describe the methods and strategies that you are using: We have developed an intelligent textbook called Inquire Biology: (1) that engages students’ interest through stimulating exploration (2) answers their questions and (3) improves understanding of biology. Inquire was built by coding the content of text chapters into a knowledge base. The result is that every significant word in the e-text is a hot button that leads the student first to a simple descriptive statement but also opens the opportunity to explore the topic further, make comparisons and contrasts, and see extended relationships. Thus, the text is transformed into an intellectual n-dimensional space to be explored leading to discoveries that are not part of the specific subsection of the text where the exploration began. The student is drawn in to being an active reader, to ask questions, and to seek connections across different parts of the textbook. As a result, the student develops fuller, more detailed, and more relational explanations for biological concepts. The qualities of mind stimulated and encouraged by such an intelligent text are especially important to improve the learning of students confronted with the complex and linear texts found in undergraduate level science courses. Inquire is especially useful for students who may struggle with terminology, hesitate to ask questions in a classroom, and find homework difficult. But, Inquire also provides extensive new learning opportunities for the students at the top of the class. Inquire provides these unique capabilities via an AI system of knowledge representation. This knowledge representation captures factual and conceptual knowledge from the textbook and uses inference paradigms to answer students’ questions. At the simplest level, students can click on words they do not understand, and that act will open up important basic information as well as opportunities to explore more broadly and more deeply.

Describe the evaluation methods that you used (or intended to use) to determine whether the project or effort achieved the desired goals and outcomes: We evaluated Inquire in a pilot experiment with community college students. There were three experimental conditions: paper textbook (N=23), electronic textbook (N=25), and Inquire (N=24). The students engaged in active reading and problem solving on membrane structure and function. During the evaluation exercise, the students worked on problem solving in an open book format, and at the end of the exercise, answered quiz questions in a closed-book format. We compared the problem solving and quiz scores across the three groups. The quiz scores of students in Inquire were higher than the scores of the students in the paper textbook (p value=0.05) and electronic textbook group by approximately 10% (p value=0.002). The mean problem solving score for the Inquire group was higher than both the corresponding score of the paper textbook and electronic textbook groups. The difference between the Inquire group and the electronic textbook group was not statistically significant (p value=0.12), but the difference between the Inquire group and the paper textbook group was significant (p value=0.02). The observed trend is consistent with our hypothesis that Inquire enhances learning by helping students perform better on homework. Although the mean homework score of electronic textbook group was higher than the mean score for the paper textbook group, there was no statistical difference between these conditions (p value=0.52). Similarly, there was no statistical difference between the quiz scores of students under these two conditions (p value=0.18). This result is consistent with the prior research that simply changing the medium of presentation of similar or identical information has no impact on student learning. The result also suggests that the improvement observed between electronic textbook and Inquire can be attributed to its knowledge representation and question answering capabilities.

Impacts of project or effort on students, fellow faculty, department or institution. If no time to have an impact, anticipated impacts: To date our project has been limited to a proof of concept demonstration by coding the content of 11 chapters of a leading college biology textbook. We are now planning to scale the effort up to extend the system we developed to an entire introductory biology textbook.

Describe any unexpected challenges you encountered and your methods for dealing with them: The greatest challenge was not unexpected - acquiring the resources to apply the developed system to an entire biology textbook. Once that is accomplished, or in parallel, we also need to test Inquire through a longer study with a larger number of students. We also need to develop inquiry-based learning curriculum of biology content that leverages Inquire through greater use of applied science activities. We need interest and guidance from biology professors at the college level to suitably orient the future work to make this technology address the most important problems facing biology education. Once we can confirm that the learning outcomes observed during the pilot studies can scale to larger sections of curriculum and a larger group of students, the approach will be ready for a large scale adoption.

Describe your completed dissemination activities and your plans for continuing dissemination: A video giving a demonstration of Inquire and explaining the technology behind it won the best video award at the 2012 annual conference of the American association for Advancement of Artificial Intelligence (See The results will be published in an upcoming special issue of Artificial Intelligence (AI) magazine focused on the most current AI techniques for education.

Acknowledgements: Inquire has been developed at SRI International under funding from Vulcan Inc ( as part of their Project Halo (See: