Artificial intelligence is an increasingly prevalent part of our everyday lives. From live-updating, turn-by-turn driving directions to responsive voice-controlled digital assistants—all in the palms of our hands—we are constantly interacting with computer programming where machines learn from experience and adjust to new data to perform human-like tasks.
For children growing up right now, AI will undoubtedly be a part of their future lives and jobs. It impacts every field of study in education. So, it’s critical that students understand computational thinking and know how machine learning works.
“It’s important that kids leave our classrooms with real-world knowledge and industry-standard software and technical experience under their belt,” says Teresa Blizman-Schmitt, a sixth through eighth grade computer science and business education teacher in Vernon, CT. She has always made it a point to ensure that kids leave her classes with transferable workplace skills. Recently, she completed the AI Explorations and Their Practical Use in School Environments professional learning program by ISTE and General Motors to learn how to compellingly integrate AI education into her lessons.
Here, Blizman-Schmitt describes how the program gave her practical, multimodal ways to teach students about artificial intelligence and explore the future of work.
EdSurge: How did you come to join the AI Explorations course?
Blizman-Schmitt: My coworkers Matt Reardon, Regina Lee and I were talking, and we wanted to define more clearly the two paths that we teach between business education and computer science. We needed more materials and background in AI. What we were doing before was just lightly touching on careers and theories, not necessarily how AI worked and what was behind it. The kids are getting more tech-savvy, so we have to up our game a little bit. I want them to be exposed to as much as possible so every kid has a chance to get familiar with something they’re interested in.
I’ve always gotten a lot out of previous ISTE trainings, so when this came out, we were like, “Okay, we have to do this.” We all joined the program. None of us come from a science or math background, though we all teach kids how to use computers and software in our classes. We knew we didn’t know enough about AI to be technical about it, so this was a perfect opportunity to learn.
How has your experience with AI Explorations reshaped your practice in the classroom?
The program was really good at giving us multiple entry points to the topics and multiple ways to learn—visual, audio, practice. While I’ve always done this in my classes, I learned how to put it all together through an AI lens. Students are coming to the material with varying background knowledge and skill levels, interests and learning styles, so learning different ways of showing and teaching these intricate topics was really helpful. It gave me great ideas for how to create the same kind of accessible and engaging learning experiences for my students who all come at this from different perspectives.
I’ve also always tried to make my lessons resonate for the kids, or find fun ways to draw them in. When you give them topics that they’re interested in or familiar with, there will be buy-in. We try to give them different ways they can relate to these lessons in their own world. This program gave me a way to make it all fit together, especially at the end, where students can take everything they learn to the next step by picking a relevant career they’re interested in exploring further.
Describe your capstone project for the program. What was the inspiration? How and why did you develop it?
The whole goal of the capstone project was to come up with a way to present AI to students. I’d had really big success previously with WebQuests, and the kids liked it, so we decided to do that. When COVID-19 came along, and we were all forced to be online teachers and students, it worked out well. We had students do web-based inquiry to learn the history of AI and get a basic understanding of how it all works. They also explored ethics and how AI will impact their careers and lives.
How did your students respond to it?
The 424 kids we put through this unit really enjoyed learning about AI and wanted more. We did a survey at the end and got really positive feedback about the whole thing. Some kids wanted more on coding or more videos on machine learning and AI. Many wanted more AI games. One girl said she liked the lessons more than she thought she would, and another wanted to know more about women in AI careers. A few students told us they wished we had more time to go deeper into the “explore a career path” part, so there is definitely enthusiasm about these topics.
Ethics was also something they really liked. They loved the real-world scenarios we came up with and debating AI ethical considerations. Again, when you can make those connections to their actual lives and show how it impacts them in all these different ways, they’ll be very engaged and excited to participate.
Speaking of career connections, how has being a part of ISTE’s AI Professional Learning Community impacted your personal and professional growth?
It’s good because there’s support, and you don’t feel like you’re alone. You realize you’re not the only one that didn’t understand what a neutron was to begin with when you have to be able to teach how neural networks work. It’s also helpful to connect with teachers in other districts to see your issues through other people’s eyes. You learn what they’re working on and help each other find solutions you wouldn’t normally come up with on your own.
The support and resources from ISTE were also fantastic. You have your own sponsor, and they get right back to you when you need help. I really feel like if I ever have a question, I can go back and ask them. We also get free membership for the year, which is really good because there are so many great resources we need and use all the time. I’m thrilled because I get updates every day, and now they have this e-learning book to download for practical tips about surviving distance learning.
If nothing else, this past year with COVID-19 makes it clear how important it is to have both access to solid resources and a strong support network you can turn to. I feel a lot more confident about teaching these topics than I did before. I’m grateful and hope they keep doing this. All these topics are ever-changing and a lot of us don’t always have the latest knowledge or background. This training is exactly what’s needed to help teachers keep up so we can best prepare kids for their careers and futures, especially in tech and STEM, which is always advancing and evolving.
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