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News Release 04-137

Learning about Learning: NSF Awards $36.5 Million for Three Centers to Explore How Humans, Animals and Machines Learn

September 30, 2004

This material is available primarily for archival purposes. Telephone numbers or other contact information may be out of date; please see current contact information at media contacts.

Arlington, Va.— Boston University, Carnegie Mellon University, and the University of Washington have received National Science Foundation (NSF) awards totaling $36.5 million over the next 3 years to establish Science of Learning Centers. The new centers will engage in basic research and serve as hubs for a national network of research focused on learning.

“Basic research about learning is immensely important. In the midst of today’s complex and quickly transforming environments, fundamental understanding of the processes of learning will help develop the knowledge base necessary to prosper in our ever-changing world,” says NSF Acting Director, Arden Bement.

According to Joseph Bordogna, NSF deputy director, “This is the right time to make new investments in the science of learning, when scientists are revealing innovative ways to integrate research across many disciplines – biological, cognitive, computational, mathematical, neuro, physical, and social sciences; engineering; and education.”

How do we learn? This most fundamental ability comes about through the complex interplay of genes, brain-based neural mechanisms, developmental trajectories, and social and physical environments. These processes of learning are just beginning to be understood. A deeper understanding of learning will allow scientists and educators to devise methods for improving how humans learn and develop machines that can perform tasks intelligently and independently.

NSF has launched the new Science of Learning Centers to meet the challenge of learning about learning. Their goal is to make new discoveries about the foundations of learning across a wide range of learning situations – from processes at the cellular level to complex processes engaging different brain areas, to behaviors of individuals, to interactions in the classroom, to learning in informal settings, to learning performed by computer algorithms.

These centers will support the intellectual, organizational and physical infrastructure needed to study problems of such scope and complexity. Each center has formed partnerships with a variety of researchers and organizations. And each center is built around an integrated, multidisciplinary research core, with each of the three centers devoted to a different aspect of learning.

Headed by Stephen Grossberg, the Center for Excellence for Learning in Education, Science, and Technology (CELEST) (Boston University, Brandeis University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the University of Pennsylvania) will study and model the behavioral and brain processes involved in learning. Learning processes include visual perception and recognition; speech and language; cognitive-emotional interactions; remembering; and forming concepts and rules. Developing qualitatively new learning algorithms based on knowledge of these processes, CELEST scientists and engineers will then be able to solve outstanding technological problems presented by uncertain and ever-changing data.

Directed by Kenneth R. Koedinger, the Pittsburgh Science of Learning Center (Carnegie Mellon University, the University of Pittsburgh, and Carnegie Learning) will advance the scientific understanding of robust learning, defined as learning that lasts a long time, transfers to novel circumstances and aids future learning. This goal will be accomplished through a new shared resource, called “LearnLab,” that will enable a new level of experimental rigor in classroom studies of learning. LearnLab will provide seven courses enhanced with computerized intelligent tutoring systems. Such systems have been used successfully in school settings to give students individualized instruction. The courses will serve as test beds where students’ learning strategies, their instructional support, and the concepts that are learned can be studied in detail. Whenever experiments demonstrate that a technique results in substantial gains, partnerships with public school systems will make the techniques available to students.

The Center for Learning in Informal and Formal Environments (LIFE) (University of Washington, Stanford University, and SRI International) will advance and use the scientific understanding of neural processes and principles associated with the cognitive, linguistic and social dimensions of learning in formal and informal environments to guide educational practices. Directed by John Bransford, the Center for LIFE has assembled a collaborative and interdisciplinary team that will develop a coherent, integrated perspective on learning through “conceptual collisions” among diverse sets of concepts, methodologies, and research traditions. The Center will to create learning environments that will prepare people for future learning and develop new kinds of assessments that measure these kinds of outcomes.

Earlier, NSF’s Science of Learning program awarded 14 catalyst projects that support partnership-building activities and exploratory research aimed at facilitating interdisciplinary approaches to complex questions. The projects represent a balance of strategies and approaches to address several important aspects of science of learning research. They include diverse projects that integrate research across economics, machine learning, and human learning topics; the social and cultural context of learning; cognitive development and problem solving; synthetic learning environments, entertainment, and education; and perspectives of diverse populations, technology design, training, and use to enhance learning.

Says Wanda Ward, Acting Assistant Director of the Directorate for Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences, which leads the program, “The Science of Learning Centers and catalyst projects will provide the means and impetus for large-scale collaborations needed to push the frontiers of interdisciplinary science and for smaller-scale innovations and partnership-making. These kinds of investments are essential for a fuller understanding of learning.”


Media Contacts
Elizabeth Malone, NSF, (703) 292-7732, email:

Program Contacts
Vittal Rao, NSF, (703) 292-8339, email:
Soo-Siang Lim, NSF, (703) 292-7878, email:
Kenneth Whang, NSF, (703) 292-5149, email:
Gregg Solomon, NSF, (703) 292-8333, email:

The U.S. National Science Foundation propels the nation forward by advancing fundamental research in all fields of science and engineering. NSF supports research and people by providing facilities, instruments and funding to support their ingenuity and sustain the U.S. as a global leader in research and innovation. With a fiscal year 2023 budget of $9.5 billion, NSF funds reach all 50 states through grants to nearly 2,000 colleges, universities and institutions. Each year, NSF receives more than 40,000 competitive proposals and makes about 11,000 new awards. Those awards include support for cooperative research with industry, Arctic and Antarctic research and operations, and U.S. participation in international scientific efforts.

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