Chatbot hype or harm? Teens push to expand AI literacy


Late last year, many teenagers found it difficult to know what to make of the new wave of AI chatbots.

Teachers warned students not to use robots like ChatGPT, which can fabricate human-looking essays, to cheat on their schoolwork. Some tech billionaires touted advances in AI as powerful forces that would surely remake society. Other titans of technology saw the same systems as powerful threats poised to destroy humanity.

The school districts didn't help much. Many reactively banned bots, at least initially, rather than developing more measured approaches to introducing students to artificial intelligence.

Now, some teens are asking their schools to move beyond the fears and fantastical narratives of Silicon Valley and provide broader AI learning experiences that are firmly grounded in the present, not science fiction.

“We need to find some kind of balance between 'AI is going to rule the world' and 'AI is going to end the world,'” said Isabella Iturrate, a 12th grader at River Dell High School in Oradell, New Jersey. who has encouraged his school to support students who want to learn about AI, “but that will be impossible to achieve without using AI in the classroom and talking about it in school.”

Students are weighing in at a time when many school districts are just beginning to define “AI education” and consider how it can fit into existing courses such as computer science, social studies and statistics. External influencers have their own ideas.

Tech giants like Amazon, Microsoft and Google are encouraging schools to teach the Professional AI skills the industry needs. Some nonprofit groups want schools to help students develop a more critical lens focus on emerging technologies, including examining AI risks and societal impacts.

in a event at the white house Last week, the National Science Foundation announced new grants for programs that prepare students for AI careers. And the Computer Science Teachers Association, a nonprofit group whose major donors include Microsoft and Google, said it would develop educational standards. incorporate AI in K-12 computing education. Amazon said it was donating $1.5 million to the teachers group for AI education and related projects.

Teenagers have their own ideas about what they want to learn about AI, but public schools rarely allow students to drive changes to the curriculum or shape how they want to learn. That's what makes the AI ​​education campaign for students at River Dell High so unusual.

It all started last winter when the school's Human Rights Club, led by Ms. Iturrate and two other students, decided to investigate AI chatbots. The students said they were initially concerned about the idea that generative artificial intelligence systems, which train on vast databases of text or digital images, could displace writers, artists and other creative workers.

They then learned more about positive use cases for AI, such as predicting giant waves or protein folds, that could accelerate the development of new drugs. That made students worry that their teachers might be limiting students' exposure to AI by focusing solely on chatbot-enabled cheating.

The club leaders consulted their advisor, Glen Coleman, a social studies teacher who encourages students to develop their own points of view. And they decided to develop a survey to assess their schoolmates' knowledge and interest in AI chatbots.

River Dell High, which serves about 1,000 students in an upper-middle-class Bergen County enclave, is not a typical public school. When the Human Rights Club proposed conducting its schoolwide AI survey last spring, Principal Brian Pepe enthusiastically agreed.

More than half of the school (512 students in grades nine through twelve) responded to the anonymous questionnaire. The results were surprising.

Only 18 students reported using ChatGPT for plagiarism. Still, the vast majority of students said that cheating was their teachers' primary focus during classroom discussions about AI chatbots.

More than half of the students said they were curious and excited about ChatGPT. Many also said they wanted their school to provide clear guidelines on the use of AI tools and teach students how to use chatbots to improve their academic skills.

The students who developed the survey also had other ideas. They believe schools should also teach students about the harms of AI.

“AI is actually a huge human rights issue because it perpetuates bias,” said Tessa Klein, a 10th grader at River Dell and co-director of the Human Rights Club. “We feel the need for our students to learn how these AI systems create these biases and how to identify them.”

In June, Mr. Pepe asked club leaders to present their findings to teachers. Students used the survey data to demonstrate their schoolmates' interest in broader opportunities to learn and use AI.

Pepe said he hoped high school students would eventually be able to take independent courses on artificial intelligence. For now, he has floated the idea of ​​a more informal “AI Lab” at school during lunch, where students and teachers can experiment with AI tools.

“I don't want AI or ChatGPT to become this ping-pong game where we're just stuck weighing the positives and negatives,” said Naomi Roth, a 12th grader who helps lead the Human Rights Club. “I think kids should be able to critique it, evaluate it and use it.”

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