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.

A New Direction for Maker Spaces

For the past five years I’ve seen the growth of Maker spaces throughout Western Pennsylvania. Each space has a different focus and configuration. The Montour School District has taken the concept in a new direction – a LEGO Maker space for K-4 students. According to Justin Aglio, Director of Academic Achievement and Innovation for the Montour School District, “The Brick Maker space at Montour Elementary School is a learner-centered pace giving students opportunities to design, make, and think creatively.”

“Supporting Montour Elementary School’s new Brick Maker space with our LEGO Education solutions is a natural collaboration as we share the same priorities of student-centered learning and the dedication to sparking and engaging the innate curiosity of every student with hands-on playful learning tools,” said Silver McDonald, Head of LEGO Education North America. “We look forward to seeing what the students using the new space will imagine, build and create for years to come, and how the 21st Century Skills they are acquiring will inspire and equip them for their future careers.”

Justin Aglio added, “The new Maker space will focus on enhancing children’s spatial, fine motor, social, language and creative skills through activities using a variety of LEGO Education solutions including LEGO Education WeDo 2.0, LEGO® MINDSTORMS® Education EV3, LEGO Education Simple and Powered Machines, and more.  These solutions will also help students learn important lessons in science, technology, art, math, language arts, architecture and engineering.” In addition, the new LEGO Education Maker activities will be utilized throughout the experience. The school hopes to inspire students to design and make amazing creations at each of the following stations:
Animation Studio, Library, Test Track, Architecture, Engineering and Collaborative Building Center.

“At Montour, we like to use the learning terms “hands-on, minds-on” for tactile educational activities that spark motivation and excitement. The new Brick Maker space powered by LEGO Education solutions is certainly an inspiring environment where our kids can imagine, design, create, and share ideas with one another.  The interplay of imagination and education is really what makes this space so special,” said Dr. Christopher Stone, Superintendent of the Montour School District.

The room concept was the creation of Jason Burik, Co-Principal at Montour Elementary School and Justin Aglio.  The construction of the Maker space was a collaborative effort between Montour students, parents, teachers, administrators, LEGO Education, Carnegie Mellon University, Barnes and Noble, and Parkway West Career and Technology Center.

Jason Burik and Jason Shoaf, Co-Principals at Montour Elementary School are excited about the
support of LEGO Education.  Burik is a world-renowned LEGO artist who has created LEGO
masterpieces for Google, Stanford University, University of Maryland Baltimore County, Cisco,
Nationwide Insurance, NCAA, NFL, MLB, and NHL professional sports teams. Shoaf is a Maker
at heart and has always enjoyed learning through the connection of kinesthetic movement.
“LEGO and making has always been a passion of ours, and now with the assistance of LEGO
Education, we are able to combine the two and provide students a unique and engaging learning
experience,” said Burik and Shoaf.

Redesigning Learning Spaces

For the second year in a row the K-12 Horizon Report included “Redesigning Learning Spaces” as a mid-term (3-4 year) emerging trend in education. Throughout western Pennsylvania I’m observing not only spaces like libraries take on new shapes and functions, but entire buildings designed for active learning. On November 7 I’ll join Justin Aglio, Director of K-4 Academic Achievement and K-12 Innovation, and Dr. Chris Stone, the superintendent of the Montour School District, at the Three Rivers Educational Technology Conference (TRETC), to share a framework for rethinking how to design learning spaces and an experiential activity for conference attendees to discover some of the elements in the new Montour K-4 Elementary School.

Key to any redesign of a learning space is the awareness of “why” we need to rethink how the learning space looks, feels, or responds to the needs of the learners. Prakash Nair, an architect for the Fielding Nair International, has developed four criteria (Blueprint for Tomorrow, 2014):

  • Be welcoming – this includes the colors, furnishings, greenery, or adding a coffee bar with WiFi access.
  • Be versatile – this goes beyond flexibility. It looks at how learning spaces can be reconfigured and rethought to meet needs over time. A versatile space may be an open commons area today, but it may become multiple classroom spaces in the future.
  • Be supportive of varying and specific learning activities – spaces may have different designs based on what type of learning is desired. Collaborative learning requires tables and LED screens that allow for groups of learners to work together, whereas a research zone may have individual tables and no projection needs.
  • Send positive images about activities and behavior – spaces need to showcase student learning. There may be exhibit spaces that have special lighting and sound to highlight student work.

Photo by Norton Gusky CC BY 4.0

Montour’s new K-4 Elementary School is a great example of the transformation in thinking about the use of space as part of the learning experience. The entrance makes a strong statement welcoming parents, community members, as well as the student population. Every space provides a learning opportunity. Learners in the hallway, in the Minecraft Learning Lab, or in a flexible Maker Spaces are active investigators working collaboratively or on personal projects using design thinking infused with easily accessible technology. Every classroom has a variety of furniture options to meet the needs of different student learning. The gymnasium provides not only a home for sport activities, but becomes a an open learning space. For TRETC it’s the center for vendor exhibits and for the opening and closing sessions. Throughout the building student work is prominently presented.

TRETC 2017 Redesigning Learning Spaces