Graphic cartoon with child watching a TV and a robot.

GSE researcher to lead education and workforce development efforts on $20 million NSF grant awarded to UB


Headshot of Christine Wang, PhD.

X. Christine Wang, PhD, professor, associate dean for research and director of the Fisher-Price Endowed Early Childhood Research Center

X. Christine Wang, professor and associate dean for research in the Graduate School of Education, will lead education and workforce development efforts on a highly competitive grant that was awarded to UB by the National Science Foundation. The interdisciplinary grant will establish the National AI Institute for Exceptional Education to develop artificial intelligence systems that identify and assist the millions of young children who—under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act—require speech and language services.

The five-year, $20 million project seeks to address the nationwide shortage of speech-language pathologists and provide services to children ages 3 to 10 who are at increased risk of falling behind in their socioemotional and academic development.

The National AI Institute for Exceptional Education will focus on developing advanced AI technologies to scale speech-language pathologists’ availability and services to ensure that children in need of speech and language services receive the necessary attention.

An expert in early childhood development and learning, Wang will focus her research efforts on the grant on identifying and collecting use cases that can be used to train the AI system, as well as conducting validation research in schools to ensure the efficacy of the interventions. Working with a large research team, she will examine speech patterns, verbal articulation, nonverbal communication, and the ways in which technology can support students in reaching their communication goals in the context of academic learning and social interaction. GSE’s Fisher-Price Endowed Early Childhood Research Center, where Wang is the director, will serve as a partner in collecting data and supporting this research.

“So many children suffer from language difficulties and communication challenges. This is not just affecting their learning and progress academically, but also affects their social interactions, like making friends, and their sense of self. COVID probably made this even worse,” Wang said. “This is an equity issue. Although students need support, there’s a huge shortage of speech-language specialists. … This technology can really help us bridge the gap.”

The interdisciplinary institute team, consisting of more than 30 researchers from nine universities who specialize in various research areas, plans to develop an AI screener to enable universal early screening for all children, and an AI orchestrator to work with speech-language pathologists and teachers to provide individualized interventions for children.

“The goal of the AI screener is to achieve universal screening, so we do not need to rely on parents’ observations or teachers paying special attention to kids. You can use this simple screening tool to identify the kids who deviate from more typical developmental patterns,” said Wang. “Then, we still refer them to the specialist to do an in-depth assessment, but the universal screening allows us to identify the cases earlier and more accurately, preventing kids from falling through the cracks.”

The AI orchestrator will primarily be used in public school classrooms to administer a wide range of evidence-based interventions, and to assess their effects on meeting children’s learning targets. Wang explains that the orchestrator will aid in collecting children’s communication data—including communication with peers, classmates, doctors and classroom teachers—to identify the issues and provide support needed.

“We’re not trying to replace teachers or replace speech communication specialists. They are providing highly specialized training and support to children. I don’t think any technology can replace them,” said Wang. “However, the technology can really help.”

Venu Govindaraju, UB vice president for research and economic development; Jinjun Xiong, SUNY Empire Innovation Professor; and Srirangaraj Setlur, co-director and principal research scientist of UB’s Center for Unified Biometrics and Sensors, will direct the institute and coordinate the team’s work. In addition, the institute team will include 12 other UB researchers representing the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences and the College of Arts and Sciences.

“Christine Wang is a talented researcher who has worked tirelessly with faculty from across the university to help increase chances of securing external funding. This NSF grant is an excellent example of Christine’s efforts and the benefits of interdisciplinary research,” said Suzanne Rosenblith, GSE dean and professor. “This grant will allow UB and GSE to further our mission of engaging in ground-breaking research linked to educational, social and economic opportunities and outcomes at the individual and collective levels. I look forward to seeing how the National AI Institute for Exceptional Education transforms academic research and AI technologies in the future.”

Events are being planned to generate interdisciplinary collaboration and advancements in AI, human-AI interaction and learning science at UB.

“This is not just about one project or a one-time thing,” Wang explained. “We’re going to leverage these kinds of resources to educate our students and computer science engineers of the future on AI technology. We also want this project to springboard our education students to get access to AI technology and to understand the potential of AI for classroom applications.”