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How One District Is Preparing Students for an AI-Powered World

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You've got a classroom filled with middle school students working out math problems on computers. Which students are knocking them out with ease? Who's having trouble?

In a pilot test of math software at David E. Williams (DEW) Middle School in Coraopolis, Pa., emojis tell the smart-glasses-wearing teacher what she needs to know. A smiling emoji hovers over a student's head: That means the student is progressing nicely. A frown emoji indicates struggle. What could be giving the student trouble? The teacher taps the emoji to see which problem the student is working on. 

Pilot tests like this one, administered by Ph.D. students from nearby Carnegie Mellon University are common in Pennsylvania's Montour school district. So, as this fall is the first time the university has offered a bachelor's degree in artificial intelligence, it seemed only natural that DEW Middle School would try out a new curriculum of its own to teach students the basics of artifical intelligence. 

The district is calling the curriculum a first-of-its-kind. Not only will DEW have the guidance of Carnegie Mellon professors, it also plans to arrange field trips to "Robotics Row" in Pittsburgh, where startups are working on advancements in autonomous manufacturing and self-driving cars.

"Many ask me, 'Why middle school?'" Justin Aglio said in an interview. He is the director of academic achievement and district innovation for Montour schools and a visiting fellow at Carnegie Mellon's Human-Computer Interaction Institute. "Fifth graders will graduate in 2025 when machine learning will be more powerful than, possibly, the brain. It's not that far away and we want all of our students prepared, not just those on a certain track or those who consider themselves tech or science-minded." (Meet a 13-year-old whose education, technical ability, people skills, and scientifc mind have made her "future-proof" in the words of Education Week's Benjamin Herold.)

Here's a breakdown of what the AI curriculum will emphasize.

AI ethics: All 818 DEW students in grades 5-8 will take this class to consider questions like these: How can we build a better society? How can we use technology and AI for the greater good? "Some say the robots will take over the world," said Aglio. "But it's the people who make the technology and program it who are really important. AI is scary only if the programmers don't get this training."

Moon-shot thinking: Aglio says the district wants all students to "think big and shoot for the moon." Students will tackle difficult, seemingly impossible, goals. When they think they've found an answer, they'll be challenged to come up with additional solutions. "We need more ideas in this world," said Aglio. "There are people in the world who don't have clean water. There's probably someone sitting right now in the 6th grade who has a solution for that."

Career readiness: Students will take field trips to "Robotics Row," to witness firsthand the development of fully autonomous cars at Argo AI, a startup that has partnered with Ford. They'll also get a behind-the-scenes look at Carnegie Robotics and Uber's Advanced Technologies Center. Employees of these companies will visit DEW to talk about their work. There's also a plan to foster community discussions around AI: How AI impacts the medical field, policymaking at the government level, students on their digital phones, and our lives in general. (Benjamin Herold in this Education Week article looks at the monumental challenge schools face in preparing students for a future labor market that's being continuously reshaped by technology.)

AI for all: Aglio stressed that the AI curriculum is for all students, not just gifted students, or those who excel in technology or science. To that end, the AI curriculum at DEW will incorporate the arts. Seventh and 8th graders will get the chance to use AI to make music. Students will use Amper, an artificial intelligence music technology that allows anyone to create music without years of training or the need to purchase thousands of dollars worth of equipment.

Photo: Ars Electronica. Licensed under Flickr/Creative Commons


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