Fine Grain Data is a series of interviews with our senior research scientists conducted by our communications intern, Megan Ciszek. The aim of the series is to get to know the people who make up ACTNext, and explore some of the motivations and thoughts driving their work on developing the next generation of tools for learning and assessment.

We invite you to check back frequently over the coming weeks as we post the rest of the Fine Grain Data Interviews. This week, Steve Polyak shares his thoughts on research projects he’s been involved with and his vision of seeing education break away from traditional norms.

What brought you to ACTNext?

Around 15 years ago, my wife and I made a decision to leave Chicago and move back to the Iowa City area – where we first met – in order to raise our family. My wife was originally from Cedar Rapids and this was an opportunity to be near her family.

For 10+ years I worked at Pearson on a range of software systems involved with large scale assessments. In 2013, I was contacted by a former Pearson colleague about an opportunity at ACT. I joined the ACT enterprise architecture team and then through various interactions with ACT’s Office for Innovation (OFI), I was extended an invitation to join the OFI team focusing on prototypes and ACTLabs.

As OFI fed into the formation of ACTNext, I was given an opportunity to return my professional focus back to my graduate studies focus of Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning.

What do you do at ACTNext?

Currently my role is designated as a Principal Advisor on Systems Architecture. I view that responsibility as helping to guide the technology focus and decisions of ACTNext especially as it relates to integration of systems and services alongside the conceptualization, prototyping, and development of new capabilities. In practice though, ACTNext requires a range of tasks for its members. I also play roles that resemble a research scientist, principal investigator, software developer, data analyst as well as architect.

What are some of the projects you are currently working on?

At ACTNext, I have been involved in many projects including architecture, development and research work on the Missing Link/Educational Companion App, machine learning research and execution on a Collaborative Problem Solving game, research into a dynamic Cognitive Diagnostic Model for Learning and Assessment Systems (dCDMLAS), and utilization of the emerging ACT Learning Analytics (LEAP) platform.

I have presented our work at a variety of venues including Knowledge Discovery and Data Mining (KDD), Neural Information Processing Systems (NIPS), Michigan School Testing Conference/Association of School Administrators (MASA) and to the ACTNext Board Members in Washington, DC.

What is your personal research mission/vision/aspiration? Goals?

I am a big believer in lifelong learning. I enjoy focusing on acquiring knowledge and wisdom around skill areas that will help me contribute to, and improve, group success. I am a 100% committed doer with a maker culture emphasis of learning-through-doing.

How does this align with ACT and ACTNext’s mission?

The blended mission of ACT/ACTNext involves finding ways to help people achieve success through the confluence of emerging combinations of assessment/psychometrics and cutting edge technology via Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning. By applying a learning-through-doing approach, I hope to continue push our agenda forward as a blend of theoretical and applied project work.

What are your personal research interests?

My undergraduate degree was in cognitive psychology, my master’s degree was in computer science and my PhD was in artificial intelligence. All three still drive my interests today. My professional career focused on software development, especially web-focused, and on software architecture.

For over 20 years I have been involved in solutions for the education industry. My interests continue to evolve towards the promise of adaptive/personalized learning and how educational technologies can support that.

At this point in your career, what are you most proud of professionally?

To be honest, I continue to feel that my pride waits for future work that I haven’t achieved yet. I see pieces of the puzzle snapping into place but still feel like I have many miles to go with team members before I will put down a stamp of professional pride.

What future trends do you see in your field, and are there any that you are particularly excited or concerned about?

There are many trends to pick from, some more technology-focused, some more promising from an educational perspective. I do perceive a trend that will lead to a breakout of the traditional model of educating that will truly become equitable and advantageous for all to learn and excel at their own rate.

How do you see yourself contributing to these trends?

I hope ACTNext can find itself at the center of at least part of this wave by researching, developing, and innovating new concepts and capabilities that make this trend a reality for learners world-wide.

What is a fun/interesting fact about you?

In my spare time, I continue to practice and learn how to play two concertinas I own, a polish concertina called a Chemnitzer and an Anglo concertina. Concertinas were very popular during the middle and late nineteenth century for middle class families.

Before the emergence of phonographs and other such “mechanized” music, people learned how to play from each other, taught each other new tunes and relied on each other for entertainment. By the early twentieth century though it had all but vanished from American popular culture, becoming only a Hollywood symbol of “the old days.”

I like the idea of returning to those old cultural roots where music was personal, shared, and made for a way for people to connect with each other.