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Advisory Group Promotes ‘5 Big Ideas in AI’ for K-12 Schools

The nonprofit AI4K12 provides free resources and activity guides on its website, including important angles from which students and teachers should study AI. It is also developing curricula for Georgia public schools.

A student sitting at a white table holding an illuminated light bulb in one hand. A pen and a stack of notebooks sit on the table in front of them.
Long before ChatGPT dominated the conversation about artificial intelligence, a group of academics and K-12 teachers began developing national guidelines for AI curricula in schools.

The AI4K12 working group dates back to 2018, after Carnegie Mellon computer science professor Dave Touretzky discovered there were very few, if any, definitions of AI in K-12 technology instruction plans across the country. At that time, self-driving vehicles, voice-recognition software, virtual assistants and chatbots, language translation software, facial recognition devices and many other smart technologies were in use.

“Netflix was recommending movies,” Touretzky said in an interview with Government Technology Tuesday. “Your phone — back then, and now — is filled with all kinds of things AI.”

Touretzky consulted with the Computer Science Teachers Association (CSTA) and the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence. The original working group consisted of Touretzky, Deborah Seehorn of CSTA, Fred Martin of UMass Lowell, and Christina Gardner-McCune of University of Florida. Five years later, the nonprofit agency is assisting schools across the nation.

“It started with the four of us, but it was the K-12 teachers and teacher trainers, not just the ivory-tower academics, that made this work,” Touretzky said.

With funding from the National Science Foundation, AI4K12 developed a poster that is still available in 15 different languages to anyone who requests it. The poster lists “Five Big Ideas in AI” that are relevant to all K-12 students and educators, Touretzky said, and those ideas are explained in a way that laypeople can understand:

  • Perception — Computers perceive the world using sensors.
  • Representation and reasoning — Agents maintain representations of the world and use them for reasoning.
  • Learning — Computers can learn from data.
  • Natural interaction — Intelligent agents require many kinds of knowledge to interact naturally with humans.
  • Societal impact — AI can impact society in both positive and negative ways.
Touretzky said those big ideas are further broken down in five grade “bands,” or categories, covering primary, elementary, middle school and high school.

For example, for the big idea of perception, students between kindergarten and second grade might discuss human senses, like sound, taste, touch and smell, while children in grades three through five learn about animal senses, and older students explore how humans can see colors. Likewise, the youngest students proceed to understand that computers can see and hear through their cameras and microphones, while the older students learn about how self-driving cars can identify humans, Touretzky explained. By studying components of AI, he hopes students will understand its limits and the risk of taking its output at face value.

“AI is the fourth industrial revolution,” he said. “We want people to have a balanced view. ‘Seeing is believing’ is not true anymore.”

With the onset of AI ChatGPT late last year and its rapid growth in education, Big Idea No. 4, natural interaction, must be modified. That concept was created under the presumption that AI had a limited understanding of human language, but ChatGPT seems to understand metaphor, humor, irony and the “deeper shades of meaning,” Touretzky said.

“A lot of those limitations have melted away,” he said. “Some of them (AI functions) can tell you why a joke is funny, which is pretty amazing. So now, there’s a need to update our materials.”

Regardless of future updates, AI4K12’s outreach efforts are ongoing. Anyone can get on the organization’s mailing list through the website free of charge, and the free resources and activity guides will continue to be available on the site, Touretzky said.

AI4K12 also spearheaded an AI school curriculum program in Georgia called AI4GA. The materials for grades six through eight recently went to public comment, and the high school materials are even further along in the process, with the possibility of approval by the start of the 2023-2024 academic year, Touretzky said. Six middle schools in five counties have already piloted the nine-week “Living and Working with Artificial Intelligence” elective, Touretzky said.

According to the AI4GA website, the Georgia program aims to make AI relevant and exciting to African American, Latino and rural students while preparing all students for future AI-powered careers. It also seeks to determine what support teachers need to feel comfortable teaching AI, with the goal of creating a professional development course for the educators, current and future, who would teach the AI electives.
Aaron Gifford has several years of professional writing experience, primarily with daily newspapers and specialty publications in upstate New York. He attended the University at Buffalo and is based in Cazenovia, NY.