Seven Reasons why Elementary, Middle, and High School Students Should Learn AI

AI is shaping up to be one of the most transformative technologies of our generation. As the parent of a Middle Schooler, I see my daughter interacting with AI every day. From Alexa to Auto-Correct on a phone, to shopping recommendations on web sites, AI is in many aspects of her life. I want her to understand the AI that powers these products, how it works, how she can use it, and to start forming her own opinions about what role it should play in her life.

The good news is that now, with programs like http://aiclub.world, students with even no programming or math background can start learning AI and applying AI to solve problems in their lives and communities. By learning and building AI, students get a good understanding of its potential and limitations that they can apply to their day to day lives and future careers.

In this article, we describe what AI is, the experiences of students who have learned it with our help, and why we believe all students should learn AI.

What is AI, and how is it related to Programming, Robotics and STEM?

AI enables computers to do some tasks that human brains do: recognize images, understand text, find patterns in examples, create game strategies, etc. AI programs usually start by Training (or Learning), and then apply the learning to solve new problems, or Predict what is going to happen next.

For example, say that a human asks a robot to go to another room and pick up a cup, saying — “Robot, please get me a cup from the kitchen”. The AI is the software that talks to the human, understands his/her voice, understands what he/she is asking for, knows where the kitchen is, knows where it currently is, and maps a route from its current location to the kitchen and the cup. Additional robotics and programming can move the robot to the kitchen and to the cup location (following the map computed by the AI), lift the arm and get the cup.

AI can work alone (as with auto-correct on your phone) or with Robotics as in the example above. It can also involve programming (for example in smart applications) and has a lot of underlying math. However, one of the best things about AI is that, with today’s technology, you can use AI to solve real problems without knowing much (or anything) about the math or even doing any programming up front.

Can students this age really learn AI? Don’t you need a PhD?

It is a common misconception that even getting started with AI requires a PhD or advanced education. A lot of math is needed to understand how AI works internally and if you want to build a brand new AI algorithm (a new technique) from scratch. For example, researchers who build brand new AI types do need PhDs and a lot of math. However, that is not what most of the world does today with AI. In most cases, the AI algorithms publicly available are so powerful that people reuse existing algorithms. To use existing algorithms effectively, what you need to learn is how to think about data, what types of AI algorithms are best for what problems, and how to train, test and improve each type of algorithm.

With modern tools, you do not need to know any math or any programming to get started with AI. Once started, you can progressively learn advanced AI concepts such as Deep Learning and Reinforcement Learning, and proceed as far in depth as you would like. For example, using AIClub, a group of 5th, 6th and 7th graders built a Smart Recycle Sorter to help recycling in their community. Using Deep Learning with Convolutional Neural Networks (an advanced type of AI that can recognize images), they built a smart device that can take pictures of trash and alert humans to the right bin to place the item (see Figure 1). You can also see a video of their project here. They have submitted their work to an international AI competition. The AI knowledge they used for this project was learned over a three month period, before which they did not know any AI.

Figure 1: The Smart Recycle Sorter. Pictures of trash are classified by a Deep Neural Network AI, which the guides the user to the right bin to place the trash

What do students learn when they study AI, and how do they learn?

We have found that “Project Based Learning”, where they learn by building, is a great way to learn the concepts and also see how they work in practice. This is how it works:

  • We typically start by showing students examples of AI in their daily life, examples they see in movies, how companies like Amazon and Netflix use AI to make recommendations, and how information can be used to learn patterns and make new predictions. We tell them about how these AIs work in the back (at a high level), what information is used to train the AI, how it is built and tested, etc.

From then on, they learn different types of AI, how AI works with math and programming, and can build and use more and more advanced AIs over time. Students use as much or as little code as they like, and there is a massive variety of projects that they can build. AI is a very broad technology, so they can learn more all the way to college, and beyond, as they choose.

Why should they learn it?

(1) Engage with a powerful technology, on their own terms

AI will be part of any student’s future, even if they pursue careers in non technical fields:

  • If you decide to be a doctor, you can use your understanding of AI to appreciate new trends in medicine and AI assistants from diagnostics to surgery.

Understanding AI helps a student engage with it on their own terms, without being afraid or overwhelmed. They understand not just the power of the technology, but also its limits and risks, and how it is affecting society in both positive ways (like improving productivity) and negative ways (like deep fakes). Students better understand how their personal information is used, how companies interact with them, and how devices they use every day work (and do not work!).

(2) Solve problems in your community

Our students have been able to use AI to solve real world problems. In the Smart Recycle Sorter example above, students visited their local recology center and found that misclassification of trash can cause the center’s machines to get stuck. In one case, a misclassified battery caused a fire in the center and shut it down for four months! They were able to use AI based image recognition to build a trash sorter to help their community avoid problems like this. In another example, a group of 6th graders used AI based text classification to build a friendly chatbot that helps their fellow students manage middle school stress. In both cases, the students learned the AI they needed over about 3 months, and did not know any AI before that.

(3) Use programming to build smart applications!

Coding is a generally useful skill for future careers, but just writing code for itself is not always fun. It is much more fun if the code can be written to build something useful or solve an important problem. AI helps you use code to build amazing applications like chatbots, programs that can recognize images, and more! In our feedback surveys, 100% of all students who have studied AI said that they now wanted to write more code.

(4) Math beyond textbooks. See how useful math is!

AIs learn from examples and are very good at finding patterns in examples, You can learn how to build and use AI without knowing a lot of math, but training an AI can give you new perspectives on how math can be used to understand patterns in data and how AI learns those patterns. Simple math concepts like averages, square roots and percentages come to life with AI. In AI projects, students learn how to put their algebra, probability and other concepts learned in math to practical use in real problems. In our surveys, 42% of students who studied AI with us told us that it has increased their interest in math.

(5) Understand how applications get built in the real world

Figure 2 shows the typical process of building an AI to solve a problem. You need to understand your problem, then get data (examples), train the AI, use the AI predictions in the solution, see how it works, and improve. This is the same cycle that real world products use (in both AI and other areas), and gives students a great exposure into what it means to solve a problem, see whether the solution worked in real life, and then iteratively improve.

Figure 2: Lifecycle of an AI Based Product

(6) Demonstrate teamwork and leadership!

Community projects like the Recycle Sorter are great opportunities for teamwork. These projects required students to consult professionals and adult experts to understand the problem. They had to find creative ways to get the data and understand how to do it safely and legally. Finally they learned how to test and improve their product and how to get users to try out their solution. The students learn how to work together and with adults to solve the problem. Many competitions enable students to showcase their projects and skills this way, building critical teamwork and leadership skills for life.

(7) Have fun!

Finally, AI is fun! Some things we have seen students enjoy most:

  • Seeing an AI improve when you give it more examples

Summary

Our world is changing rapidly, and the technologies that are driving the future are already in our lives. Learning about them early puts students in the driver seat, to use, adapt, debate and decide how it should fit into their lives.

I am a software engineer by training and an expert in artificial intelligence. I am also a mom! I teach coding and tech to kids from grades 4-12.