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MIT Program Fosters Early AI Education for Future Workforce

The Responsible AI for Social Empowerment and Education program at MIT develops curricula for K-12 students to give students hands-on experience with AI and robotics can do from an early age.

empty chairs and desks in a classroom
Fears around AI are both understandable and possibly a bit over-reported. There are many dangers to guard against. But let’s not allow that to blind us to its myriad possibilities, many of which you’ll read about in this AI-focused issue of GT. With our coverage, we set out to explore the current state of AI and how state and local governments can incorporate it into the work they do on behalf of their constituents. But let’s also consider the broader implications of AI.

Cynthia Breazeal is the founder and director of the Personal Robots group at MIT’s Media Lab. Breazeal is widely known as a pioneer of the social robotics field, which advances innovations in robotics where robots learn and respond to social cues and develop advanced connections with humans. She also directs the university’s efforts to foster AI understanding throughout the workforce and K-12 education through a program called MIT RAISE, which stands for Responsible AI for Social Empowerment and Education.

The emphasis on upskilling today’s workforce correlates to rapid growth in the number of job openings for the skilled employees needed to build next-generation innovations that involve AI. And those numbers continue to trend upward, with CompTIA reporting that job postings in AI or requiring skills in AI grew by 2,000 between December 2023 and January 2024.

Breazeal and the MIT RAISE program, however, are also focused on fostering understanding in kids that are years away from entering the workforce. This May will mark the third annual Day of AI, offering educators and their students around the world free, MIT-developed AI curricula to start the learning early. Momentum is building. So far, the program reports that 10,000 educators are using it with their students.

“We’re just living in a time where AI is transforming everything,” Breazeal said in a video on the RAISE website. “It’s transforming how we work within disciplines, like science or climate change or medicine or all forms of technology. It’s driving economies worldwide, and in some cases, it’s leading to outcomes that perhaps weren’t as intended and not as equitable and beneficial as we would hope them to be.”

Those unintended outcomes drive the need for AI education about both the potential and the pitfalls of the technology.

MIT’s curriculum developers are shaping age-appropriate, hands-on experiences to familiarize kids as young as kindergarten age with what AI is and what it can do. Young children also get an introduction to robotics by designing their own robot.

Kids ages 8 to 10 are taught the basics of machine learning by examining data sets and how they are used to generate algorithms and predictions. Curriculum for this age group includes discussions of how to keep AI from violating human rights.

Middle schoolers develop AI literacy skills through exposure to AI in stories, pictures and music. They learn how to use AI to create their own art, as well as how to detect deepfakes and other AI-generated content. They can also program their own computer game with an AI character who gets better at the game as time goes on.

AI curriculum at the high school level delves into how the technology is used on social media platforms. Students learn about how user recommendations are generated, as well as how voice AI technology works with a deep dive into Amazon’s Alexa voice assistant. For computer science students, additional advanced lessons are available, which explore image classification, the Python programming language and AI bias detection.

Whether or not a student is pointed toward some facet of computer science, it’s increasingly clear that a baseline understanding of AI serves a lot of worthy purposes for today’s students.

In a recent interview with Success magazine, Breazeal summed up a worthy goal for tomorrow’s workforce when it comes to AI: “Once they feel they have a voice and that they can shape it, now they have optimism, and they have hope.”

This story originally appeared in the March 2024 issue of Government Technology magazine. Click here to view the full digital edition online.
Noelle Knell is the executive editor for e.Republic, responsible for setting the overall direction for e.Republic’s editorial platforms, including Government Technology, Governing, Industry Insider, Emergency Management and the Center for Digital Education. She has been with e.Republic since 2011, and has decades of writing, editing and leadership experience. A California native, Noelle has worked in both state and local government, and is a graduate of the University of California, Davis, with majors in political science and American history.