Computer Science Professor Iris Howley Wins NSF Grant

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WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass., May 2, 2019—Iris Howley, assistant professor of computer science at Williams College, has been awarded a prestigious grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF). The two-year grant totaling $150,474 will support Howley’s research on the relationship between instructor and student understanding of artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms underlying educational technology, and how this algorithmic understanding impacts decision-making in learning contexts.

Computer Science Professor Iris HowleyHowley’s research project, titled “Understanding Learning Analytics Algorithms in Teacher and Student Decision-making,” will involve studies with people to investigate how algorithmic understanding impacts system trust and decision-making for learning, as well as the development of “explainables” or brief, engaging interactive tutoring systems to provide algorithmic understanding to educators and learners.

“My NSF-supported research should add to ongoing discussions about ethical algorithmic transparency in the larger machine-learning community, but also provide an actionable framework for developing a more AI-informed student and teacher body as well as lightweight explainables for appending to external educational technologies that leverage complex algorithms,” Howley says. “This project will focus on just one AI algorithm, Bayesian Knowledge Tracing (BKT), due to my background working with research teams and instructors who use BKT-powered learning analytics for their teaching.”

Combining approaches from the learning sciences, human-computer interaction, ethics and machine learning, Howley’s project aims to provide undergraduate students experiences in varied interdisciplinary research. Her team includes Williams undergraduate research students majoring in computer science and psychology, with an emphasis on students from traditionally underrepresented backgrounds in computer science.

Before joining the Williams faculty in 2017, Howley received a B.S. from Drexel University, and a Ph.D. from Carnegie Mellon University. Her research occurs at the intersection of human-computer interaction and the learning sciences where she incorporates concepts from computer science, psychology, and education to improve technologically enhanced learning experiences for instructors and students.


Founded in 1793, Williams College is the second-oldest institution of higher learning in Massachusetts. The college’s 2,000 students are taught by a faculty noted for the quality of their teaching and research, and the achievement of academic goals includes active participation of students with faculty in their research. Students’ educational experience is enriched by the residential campus environment in Williamstown, Mass., which provides a host of opportunities for interaction with one another and with faculty beyond the classroom. Admission decisions on U.S. applicants are made regardless of a student’s financial ability, and the college provides grants and other assistance to meet the demonstrated needs of all who are admitted.