Thor the Thunderbird: Supporting students with a text

Southern Utah University has tackled artificial intelligence with the announcement of its new outreach tool, Thor the Thunderbird. Starting the week of Oct. 22, students across campus began receiving texts from an SMS chatbot named after the university’s mascot.

It’s the age of AI, and SUU has decided to turn this phenomenon into a tool rather than letting it become something detrimental.

“I don’t really see AI as a sci-fi dystopia. I see it as a tool that will help enhance what we’re already doing,” said Janae Hawk, SUU’s Student Outreach and Support coordinator. “It helps reach introverted students, and we’re seeing a rise of that after the pandemic.”

The Thor chatbot was created by the SOS team at SUU. Its main purpose is to assist the school with student outreach and help higher administration better understand the needs of the student body. The COVID-19 pandemic made it difficult to connect on campus, an issue which the SOS team is trying to solve by creating Thor the Thunderbird.

Some students are afraid to come ask questions,” pointed out SOS Director Heather Callison, “so if they can just text something random to Thor, they can get the resources they need or know where to go to get the answers they need.”

Unlike other AI chatbots, Thor the Thunderbird wasn’t designed to be conversational with students. Since its goal is to guide students toward help, it has only very specific parameters in which it operates.

One limitation that has concerned students is Thor’s inability to answer specific questions directly, which Callison explained is not its purpose. It will, however, direct students to resources that will know.

“The AI texting tool, or Thor, helps provide better 24/7 support to students, answer questions, strengthen connections and increase retention and graduation outcomes,” said Callison.

An element of Janae Hawk’s position is having access to and analyzing Thor-student interaction data, the goal of which is to help the university better accommodate its population’s needs.

Hawk describes her end of the chatbot as “being able to see the top ten questions people are asking … so that we can see that need and try to work from there.”

In addition to that, Hawk is flagged if the AI detects something concerning in the conversation. It will share a piece of what’s being discussed, which allows the SOS team to connect with that student, address the crisis and help them find the support they need. 

Although the SOS administration is able to monitor some of the conversations students are having with Thor, they aren’t texting students in real-time. Based on the questions asked, Thor is able to provide a handful of pre-reviewed responses. 

AI is still a relatively new tool, and SUU is still navigating how it fits on campus. The more students use Thor, the better the school can understand how to support them.

Story: Heather Turner
Editor: Chevy Blackburn