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Ed. Magazine

Students: AI is Part of Your World

Alum helps young people understand how artificial intelligence is changing everything they know
Charlotte Dungan
Photo: Jillian Clarke

It would not be an overstatement to say that artifiicial intelligence (AI) has the potential to change pretty much every job. And students, says Charlotte Dungan, Ed.M.’16, should know this.

“There’s a great shift in the future of work and what jobs will be available, and they’re disproportionately affecting populations that are the least able to advocate for themselves,” says Dungan, the COO of a nonprofit called The AI Education Project. “For example, driving a semi-truck. Those jobs are at risk of automation because right now there are companies that are using self-driving semis in their facilities.” In warehouses at big companies like Amazon, people are being replaced with robots. At Target, instead of eight cashiers, you have two staffed by humans and half a dozen self-checkout options.

But automation’s impact on jobs isn’t the only reason students should be learning more about artificial intelligence, Dungan says. That’s where The AI Education Project comes in, with a mission to make sure all students have access to understanding more broadly how the world is being reshaped by this technology, especially in underserved schools and communities across the United States.

“AI is not just about jobs,” she says. “We need to understand how to interpret laws and craft policy, and how to advocate as citizens for our rights in the age of algorithms. We need laws that give individuals transparency into how these systems impact their lives, such as how an algorithm determines if someone should receive bail or how a recommended sentence is calculated in the justice system.”

The nonprofit, she says, is trying to “widen the computer science umbrella” to include awareness about the ethical and social impacts of technology.

“And that is driven by AI right now,” she says. “Like when computers went from the office to home, everybody was very aware. And when everyone started carrying a Star Trek communicator in their pocket, everyone was aware. And we had conversations about what was happening with youth, with these emerging technologies. But it’s just as important a revolution in AI of what happens when your news feed is curated or what happens when there’s an algorithm that’s deciding whether or not you are able to get credit and is taking into account factors like your gender or your zip code to decide on your rates. And you don’t have any control over those policies.”

Everyone, she says, deserves to be aware of the impacts of AI. For students, this can be done, in part, through curriculum, which the nonprofit provides open source for free to schools. They offer longer, multiweek units that teachers can download and modify online as needed. There are also quick conversation starters for grades 7–12, what they call AI snapshots.

“It’s a bell ringer,” she says. “Five-minute discussions that you can host in other core classes. We’re not assuming that teachers or schools have space to create a whole new course” around artificial intelligence or even computer science. The AI Education Project designed the snapshots to fit into four core courses: math, science, social studies, and English. “If you are a core teacher, you can still incorporate these discussions into your own classroom. So, for example, a math class might be talking about statistics related to artificial intelligence because the backbone of AI is math. What patterns can we see in data? In terms of science, there are amazing innovations that have happened as a result of AI, like how do you use AI plus a human to get better results for breast cancer screening?”

“Our North Star is to create educational experiences that excite and empower learners everywhere with AI literacy.”

So far, in addition to working with schools to incorporate AI into coursework, the project is partnering with the Boys & Girls Club of America on summer program material and with a few museums that teach programming.

“That’s really exciting,” Dungan says, “because it reaches more students that way.” Recently, artificial intelligence and education has become a hot topic because of a new language processing bot called ChatGPT. As a New York Times story noted, about a month after its debut, ChatGPT had “already sent many educators into a panic. Students are using it to write their assignments, passing off AI-generated essays and problem sets as their own. Teachers and school administrators have been scrambling to catch students using the tool to cheat, and they are fretting about the havoc ChatGPT could wreak on their lesson plans.”

Dungan says ChatGPT is on everyone’s mind “because it’s so accessible to everyone,” but it’s not time to panic. “The debates on using tools like this are important, but we’ve been here before, notably, when calculators invaded the mathematics classroom.”

In fact, Dungan actually sees an upside to these kinds of bots.

“I may have an unusual perspective, but I think the possibilities for ChatGPT to remove rote work from the classroom and empower deep learning experiences are exciting,” she says. “If anyone can dash off a paper written by AI, perhaps this will push classrooms to revive other ways of communicating knowledge, including project-based learning, Socratic seminars, writing papers with ChatGPT as a starting point where students take on the role of critical editor, and other assessment tools that aren’t so easily hacked,” like video projects and live-action play. “The fastest, cheapest way to ensure the work is done by the student is to use pencil and paper instead of typed papers.”

Asked what excites her the most about being involved in this work, Dungan says it’s what education already offers to others.

“Our North Star is to create educational experiences that excite and empower learners everywhere with AI literacy. I think what excites me the most is that when people know about artificial intelligence, they’re able to make better decisions for themselves and for their communities,” she says. “They don’t have to be a programmer to benefit from learning about AI and I think everyone deserves access to that information. I’m excited that I get to work in that space because there’s so much work to do.”

Ed. Magazine

The magazine of the Harvard Graduate School of Education

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