AI instruction readies K-12 students for future careers

As artificial intelligence (AI) becomes a bigger part of everyday life, schools are integrating study of the technology into curricula across subjects to prepare students for eventual jobs.
By: | Issue: April, 2019
March 14, 2019
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As students use artificial intelligence (AI) in their everyday lives, schools are integrating study of the technology into curricula across subjects to prepare them for future jobs.

“These are early days for AI education in K-12,” says David Touretzky, an AI researcher at Carnegie Mellon University in Pennsylvania and the leader of AI4K12, a working group from the Computer Science Teachers Association and the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence. The group was created to develop national guidelines for teaching K-12 students about AI. “People are trying to figure out what students should know about AI in the various grade bands, what they should be able to do with AI and how we can best teach them,” says Touretzky.

AI4K12 is expected to release AI curriculum guidelines that cover reasoning, learning and societal impact, says Deborah Seehorn, curriculum committee chair of CSTA and member of the AI4K12 steering committee.

“All K-12 students need to learn about computational thinking because it’s everywhere,” Seehorn says. “It’s going to impact all of us.”

Building AI curricula

Administrators at the 3,000-student Montour School District near Pittsburgh began developing an AI curriculum in spring 2018, the same time nearby Carnegie Mellon introduced an undergraduate degree in the subject.

“Other districts were thinking about it, but no one wanted to do it because they didn’t know how,” says Justin Aglio, Montour’s director of academic achievement and district innovation. The district reached out to Carnegie Mellon, the MIT Media Lab in Massachusetts, and companies such as ReadyAI to launch middle school courses in AI computer science and autonomous robotics in fall 2018. Teachers added AI composition tools to music classes and AI ethics to library classes. The district also brought in speakers on and arranged field trips to workplaces that use AI.

Next year, instruction will expand to K-4 with Google AI Experiments. These simple projects approach the technology through drawings, language and music. Several local universities will offer AI courses to high school students for college credit, Aglio says.

Thanks to its partners, Montour launched its program at almost no cost, Aglio says.

The World Economic Forum predicts that by 2022, an AI specialist will be among the most in-demand jobs, Aglio says. “We wanted to give our students the tools because we know that technology isn’t going to change the world. It’s the people who program that technology who will change the world,” he adds.

Addressing challenges

Most educators don’t have a background in AI, which is one of the major challenges to teaching the subject, says Joseph South, chief learning officer of ISTE.

“When you get down to the fundamental concepts of AI, they relate very directly to math concepts, problem-solving methods and collaboration,” South says. “While the topic is exotic, the elements that make it up have many tie-ins to existing curriculum.”

For example, students at one school created a nutrition chatbot that offers dietary information to a health class, South says.

AI lessons do not require much infrastructure. “There are lots of ways into AI; you can find openings in what you’re already doing,” South says.

Aglio, of Montour, recommends partnering with local universities and companies. “It doesn’t matter if you’re in a city,” he says. “There is a business being impacted by or using AI right now in your area—from local sales companies to hospitals.”

Partners must be vetted for quality, sustainability, cost-effectiveness and teacher training options—not just because they use AI, Aglio says.

“You have to be willing to try something that doesn’t work and change it,” he adds. “You also have to have an intergenerational mindset, in which adults are learning from kids and kids are learning from adults.”