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!
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:
- AI RESOURCES FOR THE FINCH ROBOT 2.0:
- AI with Finch in Python
- AI with Finch in Snap!
- AI RESOURCES FOR THE FINCH ROBOT 2.0:
- AI with Hummingbird in Snap!
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.”
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.”
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.