Coach Mike

Project Leader: H. Chad Lane

Download a PDF overview.

Coach Mike is the newest virtual human in Cahner’s Computer Place at the Boston Museum of Science (MOS). Installed in 2010, he was built to support visitors, particularly young people, in the quest to learn about science and have fun while they do it. A National Science Foundation-funded collaboration between the University of Southern California Institute for Creative Technologies and the Boston Museum of Science, Coach Mike “works” at the museum’s Robot Park exhibit teaching visitors how to program a robot. Not only can he guide people to get the robot turning, buzzing, singing, and more, but he is capable of describing how the exhibit actually works and creating specific challenges for guests to solve. He’s there to explain, encourage, and give help when needed.

Museum-goers quickly notice that Coach Mike reacts with humor and emotion to whatever they make the robot do. But he doesn’t just entertain visitors, he also helps them learn. A recent evaluation conducted by the Institute for Learning Innovation found that Coach Mike’s presence in Robot Park leads to more productive interactions with the exhibit: visitors wrote more computer programs and took on more challenges when they interacted with the virtual coach.

Coach Mike was inspired by Professor Michael Horn at Northwestern University. Professor Horn created Robot Park so that museum visitors could have a fun and intuitive way to learn programming. He created the Tern programming language that uses special programming blocks with codes that allow visitors to construct programs. Tern is known as a tangible programming language meaning that you interact with it by touching, moving, and assembling the pieces.

Visitors to Robot Park who had the help of museum volunteers tended to stay longer and do more programming than those who did not have a guide. So, working with museum staff, ICT researchers built Coach Mike to simulate some of these interactions. This includes helping visitors right at the beginning by explaining what the buttons mean, how to assemble programs, and how the codes are recognized. Also, volunteers tend to suggest problems and give hints to visitors to help them along. Thus, Coach Mike has some of this same knowledge and is willing to deliver it to visitors when they want it.

To allow Coach Mike to interact with visitors and monitor interactions with Robot Park, the existing exhibit was augmented with several new software components:

  1. Physical tracking: weight-sensitive mat, robot camera, help button
  2. Virtual Human system: animation, speech, lip syncing, art
  3. Pedagogical Manager: session manager, intelligent tutoring system

The Pedagogical Manager acts as the hub by monitoring physical inputs from the exhibit (including tested blocks and programs), triggering virtual human actions (i.e., speaking and animating), assessing user actions, and providing learning support. Coach Mike’s animations run on ICT’s SmartBody system and in the Gamebryo game engine. He speaks via synthesized speech.

Coach Mike uses the techniques of artificial intelligence (AI) to support visitors: he estimates their knowledge, can judge when programs are correct (or not), and is willing to give feedback and suggestions to visitors when they want it. Pedagogical decisions are driven by a rule-based cognitive model of coaching that models a frequently changing world state. Built to simulate museum staffs’ strategies, the model encodes a variety of tutoring and motivation tactics to orient people to the exhibit, encourage them to try new things, suggest specific problems, and give knowledge-based feedback on their programs. A general aim is to balance the importance of exploration and play with the goal of giving feedback and guidance for specific challenges. Since the museum is a “free-choice” learning environment, visitors can walk away at any moment. Thus, Coach Mike’s help is always delivered in entertaining and encouraging ways that seek to maximize visitor engagement.