Boise State research team creates search tool to help elementary education

A research team at Boise State University has worked together since 2016 to develop Child Adaptive Search Tool (CAST), an interactive search engine for elementary students that uses safe-search, spell-check and other algorithms to prioritize educational results. 

CAST was initially funded by the National Science Foundation in 2018, which awarded the team $1.2 million. 

Jerry Fails, a faculty member in the Department of Computer Science and principal investigator of CAST, explains that CAST was developed to meet children’s needs in education.

“Oftentimes, children have challenges typing, spelling, formulating the query and what they want to search for. Care needs to be taken in how those results are presented to children, and it is important that children have access to the information they need,” Fails said. 

Fails’s expertise is human-computer interaction, which focuses on how humans specifically interact with technology. Fails also focuses on designing technology for children.

“We each knew our different areas of expertise and we sat down and we thought, ‘you know, we could probably do something really cool if we worked together,’” Fails said.

Casey Kennington, assistant professor in the Department of Computer Science and co-principal investigator of CAST, specializes in natural language processing, in which he programs computers to better understand natural human language — a crucial component of CAST. 

“This is for children, but we want teachers to put their stamp of approval on it,” Kennington said. “I’d rather my kids use [CAST] in the classroom, rather than just straight-up Google or Bing because of the spell checker and all the nice properties it has.”

Sole Pera is also a faculty member in the Department of Computer Science and co-principal investigator of CAST and specializes in information retrieval and looks at the user’s information needs and the resources connected to those needs. 

“CAST is that bridge between that search engine that has powerful resources and kids that have needs that are not going to have been met by that powerful resource. That’s why we have CAST to fill that gap,” Pera said.

Katherine Wright, assistant professor in the Department of Literacy, Language and Culture and member of the CAST team, helped develop and write lesson plans for elementary teachers through CAST. 

When school transitioned to online throughout the Treasure Valley, Wright noticed many teachers did not know how to engage with their students and understand how to use modern technology. 

“What do teachers need? We can’t solve all the problems right now, but maybe we can create a resource for [students and teachers] that’s easy to implement,” Wright said. 

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Wright and the CAST team have tried to solve teacher-to-student disconnect through technology. Now, CAST offers interactive lesson plans embedded in its search engine. The lesson plans involve educational videos, which are more engaging for students when compared to reading text, according to Wright. 

“While having a video versus text is not going to solve [students’] reading problems, it does allow them to still access content while their teacher and school district is working with them on the reading issues,” Wright said. 

Currently, CAST has chosen to focus on Science and Social Studies lessons because these subjects tend to get less attention than Math and English, according to Wright.

Overall, the goal of CAST is to support teachers and students through trialing times. 

“We want to help. If there’s a way that we can make life easier even for just a couple of teachers, we would be jumping up and down at the opportunity,” Wright said.

Screenshot courtesy of CAST

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