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Working Toward a Better, Kid-Friendly Search Engine

By: Kathleen Tuck, Boise State Communications and Marketing

Ask kids a question, and they’ll likely turn to the Internet to find the answer. But how easy their search is, or how appropriate the information they retrieve, depends a lot on how well they navigate major search engine sites.

Despite being digital natives, children often have trouble navigating sites like Google, Bing or Yahoo — sites designed with adults, not children, as their primary users. Often the content identified is unsuitable to children’s interests or reading levels.

Computer scientist Sole Pera plans to change that with software modules designed as search engine add-ons and aimed at children. The project is being funded by a National Science Foundation grant. The Computer and Information Science and Engineering Research Initiation Initiative grants support faculty in their first two years in an academic position following receipt of their Ph.D. Her $175,000 award will support her work and allow her to hire one or two graduate students for up to two years.

“Even though children are increasingly active Internet users, few designers have considered their particular goals, or how best to direct them to the age-appropriate content they seek,” she said in her proposal. “Unfortunately, their lack of skill in formulating adequate queries or identifying suitable retrieved resources can result in poor outcomes.”

That lack of skill encompasses a number of factors, including a limited vocabulary, poor spelling, or the inability to identify appropriate keywords or phrases. And although search engines offer suggested query phrases, children often ignore those. They also are more likely to navigate to the first item on their result list instead of identifying the most appropriate results.

The project will look at how to reorganize or filter results and will weed out inappropriate content. Sites like Google Safe Search touch on some of these issues, but don’t look at the relevancy of what kids are searching for or the age of the child.

Pera will work with two year’s worth of data collected at a number of Idaho K-12 schools, including Boise’s Garfield Elementary School where she also has participated in Hour of Code activities with members of the Boise State chapter of the Association for Computing Machinery-Women and Boise State computer science students.

Using Common Core standards, her team will develop software to identify the likely search intent given a child’s natural language or keyword query, suggest queries based on keywords and phrases in children’s vocabulary lists, literature, content written by children, and subject areas appealing to youngsters. Results will be filtered to meet readability and suitability levels for children in grades K-9.

Pera and Boise State graduate students Ion Madrazo and Nevena Dragovic presented a paper on this topic in July at a Special Interest Group on Information Retrieval (SIGIR) Search as Learning Workshop in Pisa, Italy. The paper is titled “Finding, Understanding and Learning: Making Information Discovery Tasks Useful for Children and Teachers.”

“We want to teach children how to search, but don’t want to reinvent the wheel,” she said. “We have all the resources and they are great, but they don’t serve the target audience.”

This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. CRII-1565937 to Boise State University. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.