USU Researchers Develop Artificial Intelligence Technology to Gauge Learner, Team Engagement

A group of uniformed people practicing administering aid.

By Dillon Parker

Educators strive to create learning environments that challenge students, without being too difficult. But how can they know if students are learning at their highest potential? The  Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences’ (USU) Val G. Hemming Simulation Center is developing an artificial intelligence (AI) engine that can measure task engagement levels for teams of students in real time through wearable sensors. 

“The idea is that you would be able to automatically determine at what level of engagement the team is currently operating,” said Dr. Alan Liu, USU’s Virtual Medical Environments Laboratory director. “If the training environment is too simple, students don't learn anything. If the task is too difficult, the team's not able to process everything that's coming their way and they sort of shut down. So somewhere in the middle is the optimal level of engagement.”

The Sim Center has partnered with USU’s Department of Military and Emergency Medicine (MEM) to make this project a reality. 

“This partnership between MEM and the Sim Center is imperative,” said Air Force Lt. Col. (Dr.) Leslie Vojta, USU’s Emergency Medicine clerkship director. “The simulation center provides us tools to use to safely practice medical care and to better assess students' competence.”

A group of students practice administering aid to a mannequin.
Photo credit: Courtesy of Tom Balfour

These tools include the Sim Center’s state-of-the-art Wide Area Virtual Environment (WAVE) facility, which allows USU students to continue refining medical skills in a realistic combat environment. The WAVE is a computer-based medical simulator that uses vertical screens to create large-scale, immersive 3D environments and tactical scenarios. The simulated scenarios have been developed by USU faculty and other military medical officers, based on prior real-life operational experiences. 

“It's easy to teach a medical task, but it's harder for a learner to perform the task when under pressure,” said Navy Capt. (Dr.) Sherri Rudinsky, an associate professor with USU’s MEM. “Using the WAVE creates a safe environment for the students to practice teamwork and crisis communication skills, and sparks meaningful discussions on the evaluation and management of battlefield trauma.”

MEM students enter these team learning scenarios in the WAVE equipped with wearable sensors that relay data such as heart rate, skin temperature, and speech cadence in real-time to the AI. The AI uses neural networks, which mimic the human brain and learn over time, to determine which physiological factors are indicators of engagement and healthy levels of stress.

“The AI is still in the early stages, but it's potentially applicable to any type of team environment,” said Liu. “There are many opportunities for team learning at the university and in the military that this technology would be useful for.”

A group of students practice administering aid to a mannequin.
Photo credit: Courtesy of Tom Balfour

Developing teamwork is paramount for students at USU, and this new technology potentially gives instructors a tool for evaluating engagement, not just for individual students, but teams as a whole. 

“Effective teamwork and communication skills are integral components for the successful provision of combat casualty care,” said Rudinsky. “As uniformed medical officers, USU graduates will be at the forefront of supporting the operational forces across the full range of military operations as well as serving as leaders, educators, and advocates in combat casualty care.  Introducing them to realistic combat scenarios now, in the safety of a simulated environment, allows them to gain an appreciation of the challenges of working effectively as a patient care team in a crisis."