Artificial Intelligence in K-12

Why is it important for all learners (students, parents, teachers, community members) to become more aware of Artificial Intelligence (AI)? To answer this question I reached out to a series of educators in the Pittsburgh region who are working with K-12 students and educators. I’ll take a look at the work being done at the Readiness Institute (RI) of Penn State, resources and insights from the Birdbrain Technologies company, a spin-off from Carnegie Mellon’s CREATE Lab, and teachers at the Winchester Thurston (WT) School who have developed a course in Machine Learning for High School.

Why is AI important for K-12 students to learn?

According to Bambi Brewer who worked on curricular materials for Birdbrain Technologies:

I think it is important for everyone to learn something about AI because AI systems are making decisions in our world right now, and I think everyone should have the information they need to help us as a society make responsible decisions about what kinds of systems we use and what decisions we do or don’t want them to make.

In my conversation with Lance Lindauer, the Executive Director for PART (Partnership to Advance Responsible Technology), we discussed the importance of AI as a part of digital technology education. Lance believes it’s important for learners to understand how to exert control over their personal agency when using various forms of technology. Also, as technology today is infused into all fields – health, education, manufacturing, transportation – and it’s vital for people to see that technology as something that is not scary, rather it has tremendous benefits when developed and deployed responsibly and ethically.  Lance stressed the importance for each person to become an “ambassador” for themselves in a technology economy, and to interact with technology in positive ways to also help benefit one’s community. 

Moreover, it’s critical that people understand how to responsibly use that technology. Bambi Brewer extended that idea to algorithms, the mathematical approach to finding patterns that underlies AI:

My goal is to get people talking in an informed way about how we deal with things like the bias that can occur with AI algorithms. Sometimes people see that just because it is technology, it is inherently unbiased, and that just isn’t true. All technology, for better or worse, is the product of the people who create it and embeds their assumptions and biases.

The Birdbrain Technologies website makes the point about looking at AI in the context of addressing questions of curiosity, creative problem solving and real world learning. According to the website:

Deep and joyful learning means digging into questions and issues that make students feel curious and passionate – and artificial intelligence certainly fits the bill!

Photo by Norton Gusky CC BY 2.0

In a course co-taught by Computer Science Chair David Nassar and Social Studies Chair Michael Naragon, Winchester Thurston students examine the dynamic ways in which social relationships and political policies shape and are shaped by technological changes. This interdisciplinary approach, according to Naragon, allows students “to become citizen-coders who understand the inner workings of A.I., which is often a black box to many.” This understanding helps students exercise greater amounts of agency, which in turn encourages them to become true “ambassadors.” According to David Nassar: 

This will enable them to better predict the possible social and political consequences of technological change. Data science is becoming such an essential aspect to digital literacy today; it is critical that students are exposed to the way in which AI and Machine Learning work and are used so that they can employ it themselves when needed, and also vet when it may be misused.

How is AI incorporated into K-12 programs and projects?

For the past two summers Lance Lindauer has spent time with high school students that are part of the Readiness Institute at Penn State. The Readiness Institute runs a five week summer program for upcoming seniors in high school. According to Lance the program tries to provide students with real world needs rooted in emerging-technology trends and data. Lance works with the students to understand the link between AI and digital technology and how it can interact with informing public policy, guide regional strategic decision making and investment, or boost education curriculum. In another school program, PART works with local middle schools and high schools on how to comprehend innovation and various technology topics by facilitating student-centered learning through podcasting.  PART is working with local entities like Future Grind and the team at the Saturday Light Brigade (www.slb.org), a Pittsburgh-based multimedia non-profit, to express their point of view. Students not only gain insights into AI and the related technologies, but develop agency.

The Readiness Institute also runs a 4 week Saturday program during the school year as part of the Mark Cuban’s Foundation for AI Bootcamp. According to the RI website: Over the course of four half-days, students learn what AI is and isn’t, where they already interact with AI in their own lives, the ethical implications of AI systems, and much more. The Bootcamp brings local AI experts from universities and local companies to work with the students. The program has four components:

  • identify AI in the real world
  • build their own application
  • discuss AI ethics and bias in data
  • meet and learn from AI experts

Bambi Brewer created for Birdbrain Technologies a series of free resources that teachers, parents, or learners can tap into. The resources require the use of one of the physical robots – the Finch or Hummingbird – that Birdbrain developed with CMU:

Bambi shared one fun example of how students can gain insights into “image recognition,” one of the byproducts of AI:

“…the funniest example to create was using image recognition to detect different Star Wars characters and control what the robot does based on the character that appears. For example, it plays Darth Vader’s music when it detects the Darth Vader mask.”

David Nassar (left) and Michael Naragon (right) engage in conversation with their students about binary classifiers in their co-taught course, Machine Learning and the Social Implications of A.I., at Winchester Thurston School.

At the Winchester Thurston School, a K-12 independent school in Pittsburgh, high school students are immersed in a course in Machine Learning. The course is a cross-discipline look at the impact of Machine Learning, one of the essential elements of Artificial Intelligence, on society and students’ lives. The topics that the course investigates are not limited, however, to the high school. Students throughout the K-12 program investigate the impact of AI/Machine Learning on their lives. This investigation culminates in a course with an original research project which is overseen by Naragon and Nassar. According to David Nassar who has been working on the course for four years with Michael Naragon: 

“We have had students create full-scale research projects exploring how A.I. is used for facial recognition, classification of words used in presidential speeches, classification of hate speech in tweets, making medical diagnoses, and even predicting lifespans. We have had larger discussions on the use of A.I. and machine learning in the criminal justice system, the self-driving car industry, and in advertising. There are so many uses to A.I. and Machine Learning, and each year we seek to find novel ways to let our students explore them.”

Summary:

Artificial Intelligence has gained quite a bit of media coverage, but what we really want is for students, parents, and teachers to understand the role and responsible use for all digital technologies. As Bambi Brewer explains, “ The goal isn’t for advanced CS students to learn how to create the algorithms (even though that is interesting too), it is for anyone to be able to understand what AI is, and what programs that use it can and can’t do well.”

Emma Hance, the program manager and strategic planning specialist for the Readiness Institute states: AI and algorithms are shaped by the individuals who create them, so if we truly want to move toward a more equitable future, we need to have a diverse group of individuals involved at every step in the development process.

Driving K-12 Innovation 2022: Accelerators

For the past five years I’ve participated in CoSN’s Driving K-12 Innovation project. The process includes a global advisory board of K-12 leaders, practitioners, and change makers. As one of the advisory members I engage in discourse about the major themes driving, hindering, and enabling teaching and learning innovation at schools. This fall we’ve looked at the first two dimensions for educational innovation – Hurdles and Accelerators.

Hurdles are obstacles that make participants slow down, evaluate, practice, and then make the leap to better support teaching and learning. 

Accelerators are mega-trends that drive change – sometimes suddenly and sometimes so gradually the implications aren’t readily apparent. 

I recently had a chance to join a virtual discussion about the Accelerators. It was fascinating to hear from educational leaders from around the world. We joined into Zoom Rooms where we had small group discussions. Here’s a graphic representation of the conversation:

Each group had a particular focus, but there were many common themes. Here are some of the keys to the group discussions.

  • Gaby Richard-Harrington and group members talked about leadership capacity and “that great leadership with capacity and vision is either the greatest accelerator or — the lack of it — the greatest hurdle. Period.”
  • Frankie Jackson and her colleagues (including me) discussed how putting students and agency at the center should be our focus. “All these Accelerators are intertwined with one another, and the focus being students at the center and then everything else being linked to that with a centralized vision.”
  • Stacy Hawthorne explained that “Acceleration takes many parts moving together in sequence to reach maximum speed,” likening Accelerators to the gears of an engine — everything needs to mesh to drive innovation in education.

The process will continue this fall with the final phase looking at Tech Enablers that address the Hurdles and tap into the Accelerators.

Remaking Learning: Hampton School District

Each spring Remake Learning, a regional organization that brings together K-12 education, out-of-school providers, higher education, and community partners, sponsors a series of activities around the Pittsburgh region that showcases kids at play and learning. This year Remake Learning sponsored 175 in-person and virtual events in the Pittsburgh region between May 12-23, 2022. I had a chance to visit the Hampton School District in the northern suburbs of Pittsburgh to see Remake Learning in action.

The tour group started at one of Hampton’s elementary buildings, Central Elementary School. We waited in what the school calls the living room. It’s wonderful to see how schools have placed comfortable furniture in the lobby of buildings to reduce any tension for parents or visitors. Once the group was in place, the building principal, Amy Kern, shared the agenda for our visit. 

Photos by Norton Gusky CC BY 2.0

The artwork behind Amy came from a project with the schools’ first artist in residence. The artist-in-residence worked with teachers and kids on the project. It’s a great example of infusing the arts into the curriculum. The art piece really is the welcoming showcase for the building. 

Central Elementary transformed two courtyard areas into incredible learning spaces. Amy Kern and one of her staff members gave a short slide presentation to show how the space became transformed and who were the key players. Hampton has a very strong educational organization that works with local businesses and corporations to raise money. The school also found funding from local foundations and businesses. Today the result is a Nature and Sensory Garden and an Outdoor Learning Lab where just an outdoor garden had been until last year. Hampton tapped into its students, faculty and staff to design the spaces. They also enlisted the assistance of two local businesses who provided the technical support for the construction – Blue Fox Landscape and Lady Fox. The spaces were designed to provide hands-on, project-based, outdoor learning spaces aligned with the Next Generation Science Standards.

It was wonderful to see the kids engaged in a variety of hands-on activities. The young lady on the left is an “Ambassador.” She not only takes people on tours of the garden, but she has been part of the outreach to younger students. The kids on the right are working on a series of STEM (engineering) challenges. The students have to assemble these large building blocks into operational structures working with a team of fellow students. 

From Central we jumped back into our vehicles and drove down the road to the Middle School. The Middle School principal, a former math teacher, was challenged by the superintendent to rethink a courtyard area that housed a collection of stuffed animals. The space had no real learning purpose. She reached out to her staff and students and they came up with a design for a Learning Pavilion. She enlisted the help of the Children’s Museum and Carnegie Mellon University’s Entertainment Technology Center. The Learning Pavilion serves the needs of all teachers and students. It’s a modular construction that provides for a variety of group activities. Teachers bring their own manipulatives to the pavilion and then divide their class into working teams. In a future phase a student team will build a hydroponics station where they’ll grow basil that they’ll give to the Pittsburgh Food Bank. The space also incorporates an interactive, augmented reality environment using CMU’s ARCADE system to position the animations, build interactive narratives, or layer content to the real-world environment.

I actually forgot to share our first stop at the middle school. We went into the library where high school students from the AP Research class were available to share their work along with a team of AP Computer Science students who had created Edtech solutions. I had several wonderful conversations with students who did research on topics like Critical Race Theory in Schools and physical training ways to improve the lives of people with Parkinson’s. Each student was incredibly articulate and were well prepared. The Computer Science guys (yes there were no girls) tackled software issues, like the tutoring program at the high school, and a virtual reality setup for weight lifting without the weights. 

After lunch we had a chance to visit a variety of classrooms that included a Robotics Studio, Innovation Studio, Print Studio, TV Studio, and the Learning Pavilion. Each space showcased Hampton’s desire for collaborative, interactive, project-based learning. Teachers deploy Human-Centered Design activities to engage students in brainstorming ideas as well as concept building. The furniture allows students to write on the table surfaces so they can creatively share their ideas. Students tap into traditional arts, such as printing, as well as technological tools such as 3-D printers, Hummingbirds, Finch, Sphero, Cosmos and other robotic tools.

My visit to the Hampton School District demonstrated several key points:

  • Technology is not the solution. It’s a tool that enables and accelerates learning opportunities ;
  • Effective learning solutions require partnerships with community, parent, and school groups and organizations;
  • Higher education can play a key role bringing and supporting emerging technologies, such as AR or VR;
  • Ultimately it’s about the kids. They are not just the audience. They are the creators and evaluators.