Alexa, What’s on the High School Menu Today?

When the Montour School District launched America’s first Artificial Intelligence Middle School program in the fall of 2018, many questions arose. Why middle school? Why teach Artificial Intelligence? How? (Just to name a few). But, as a student-centered and future-focused district, the thought process was not if we should teach AI, but what if we don’t teach AI? Also, why isn’t everyone teaching AI?

To better answer these questions Dr. Justin Aglio, Montour’s Director of Academic Achievement, and I met with two eighth grade students who were part of a special project that tapped into AI. The students provided great information about the “why” and “what” for learning about Artificial Intelligence and Justin added some key elements explaining how the program will grow in the upcoming years.

Tema and Aidan, two of the four eighth grade students, really played up the fact that it’s not about teaching AI in school today, but why hasn’t anyone started sooner. The “Fourth Industrial Revolution” report from the World Economic Forum points out that we need to understand our changing environment, challenge our assumptions, and continuously innovate. Schools and all institutions will need to begin to think about the impact of AI and Robotics. It’s not only jobs that will be affected. It’s our moral code; it’s our training for all learners to become informed citizens for the 21st century.

For K-12 schools that means we need to rethink how we define and evaluate learning. Montour is one of school districts who are rethinking what graduates in the 21st century need to know, understand and do. Montour believes that all students need to become data fluent. They need to know how to analyze, interpret and create data to solve problems. They need to be able to design frameworks to solve real world problems using data. Learners also need to understand the underlying processes and ethical issues behind modern technology. In Montour that’s exactly what students discover. Through a Media Arts course developed by the Massachusetts Institute for Technology (MIT) all students investigate moral issues related to Artificial Intelligence. Topics for the Montour course include: algorithmic bias called gender shades, the trolley problem, or ethical matrix design.

However, as Tema and Aidan pointed out that doesn’t explain how AI works. You need to get behind the modern 8 ball and discover how to use AI to solve a problem. We don’t want students to become just better consumers of AI; we want them to become better creative producers using AI. So what’s a problem that middle school students have on their minds? The Montour middle school students wanted to know what to expect when they head to high school.  It’s one thing to read about it, but it’s something different to develop a “skill” for Alexa to explain what to anticipate at the high school level. Amazon provides a developer’s kit that the Montour students used. The Montour team first conducted a survey of their peers and then used the data to develop the questions that would be part of a pilot project with Witlingo. Each of the four students in the development team not only conducted the research, they also recorded their answers. So, today when you ask for Montour “Hey Google, talk to Montour High School,” or “Alexa, Launch Montour High School,” you now can learn about the high school program through the research and voices of Montour students.

While the middle school program has had great success, it’s not enough to just drop AI in the middle of a student’s life. What will prepare students for the world of machine learning? According to Justin Aglio you need to arouse student curiosity at the elementary level. So next year Montour will include in its elementary program Experiments with Google AI to introduce students to AI concepts and traveling AI robots around the school that interact with students.

Once you have the students asking questions and conducting research, you want to have them go further. At Montour high school students will soon have mentorships with companies, like Google or Argo. Students will have opportunities during their Personalized Learning Time (PLT) to take additional courses, such as AI4ALL’s Open Learning program.

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