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NSBA 2024: What Should Students Know About AI? Talk to Employers

Western Maricopa Education Center school board member Robert Garcia recommends that school districts engage directly with employers to get a sense of what AI skills will be most important for students to learn.

A robot working alongside humans in an office.
As school leaders gradually accept the presence of artificial intelligence tools in classrooms, many are seeking guidance anywhere they can find it — from tech companies, education conferences and each other — on how to make it work for their students. According to school board member Robert Garcia of Western Maricopa Education Center (West-MEC), whose day job puts him at the intersection of industry and education, the best approach for schools regarding AI can be summed up in two words: total engagement.

Speaking to Government Technology at the National School Boards Association conference in New Orleans last month, Garcia said his day job involves working for the state of Arizona attracting businesses and helping them find talent, and school programs are a key part of those conversations.

“We bring in companies that are new to the United States, or new to my state, so I can see the conversations of the business needs there. … Arizona is big on semiconductors right now. We brought in TSMC [Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company], we got Core Power, we got AXM, Intel is growing in our backyard, so we have a lot of industry out there,” he said. “Then we have a really innovative school — ASU [Arizona State University] has a large incubator with brand-new, cutting-edge technologies, the drones, the robots, the AIs, all these things from our medical fields to our service fields to our engineering fields. All these different fields are unfolding in Arizona, so we capture that in our CTE [career technical education] programs to make sure that we understand what kind of requirements these employers are going to have, what kind of pay and longevity they’re going to provide to students, because again, we’re not just trying to get them a job, we’re trying to get them a career.”

On the topic of AI, Garcia recommended that school district leaders communicate with technology companies and other employers about what their future employees will need to know. He said developing relationships with potential employers at the most basic level is key to giving students the best chance at career success in technology fields.

“The schools have to engage with the companies themselves — not just the services, but the companies,” he said. “At West-MEC, we have a lot of board committees that actually bring in industry. We sit at the table, we go over the minimum requirements, and then we go to career paths. The career path is important because when we’re talking to a student about, ‘When you get into this, these are the things you can grow with, including pay, how long is this job going to last’ … all this information is laid out to be able to present to the student, but also the credential that they get at the end, they can (turn that into) a job opportunity. You’re not going to get that unless you have the industry right there in front of you, face to face, talking about, and committing to, that credential development.”

Andrew Westrope is managing editor of the Center for Digital Education. Before that, he was a staff writer for Government Technology, and previously was a reporter and editor at community newspapers. He has a bachelor’s degree in physiology from Michigan State University and lives in Northern California.