The description of “artificial intelligence in high school” may conjure up a science fiction novel where robots stand around chatting at their lockers.
The reality, at Seckinger High School in Gwinnett County, Ga., looks more like this: A social studies teacher pauses a lesson on the spread of cholera in the 19th century to discuss how data scientists use AI tools today to track diseases. A math class full of English-language learners uses machine learning to identify linear and non-linear shapes.
The simplest explanation of this technology is that it trains a machine to do tasks that simulate some of what the human brain can do. That means it can learn to do things like recognize faces and voices (helpful for radiology, security, and more), understand natural language, and even make recommendations. (Think of the algorithm Netflix uses to suggest your next binge-worthy TV show.)
While the Gwinnett County school district, which with more than 177,000 students is among the largest in the country, opened Seckinger high school this month to relieve overcrowding elsewhere, the focus of the school is unique. Seckinger is apparently the only high school in the country dedicated to teaching AI as part of its curriculum, not just as an elective class, according to CSforAll, a nonprofit group dedicated to expanding computer science education in schools across the country.
The district has also expanded the focus on artificial intelligence to three nearby elementary schools and a feeder middle school, creating an AI cluster. Ultimately, Gwinnett aims to expose kids to AI in every subject, as they move from kindergarten to 12th grade. Students who find themselves particularly drawn to the topic will get opportunities to delve even deeper into how artificial intelligence works and the ethical implications of using it.
Through the cluster, Gwinnett plans to do more than just prepare kids for success in a hot corner of the job market: It wants to give them a critical window into how AI is reshaping nearly every aspect of the economy.
“Our students need to understand the implications of the technology that they are consuming, and how it’s being used on them so that they can make informed decisions,” said Sallie Holloway, the district’s director of artificial intelligence and computer science. (Holloway said she’s never spoken to another district leader who had AI in a job title.)
Gwinnett is taking a “bold step to help students prepare for the present and the future,” said Joseph South, the chief learning officer for the International Society for Technology in Education, a nonprofit group that runs the largest educational technology conference in the country.
“We talk like AI is coming,” South said. “But it’s actually already here. It’s all around us. There’s no part of our society that isn’t going to be touched by [AI]. To the extent that it’s invisible to us, we don’t have any power over it. It has power over us. To the extent that we understand it, and even better know how to design it, then we can start to partner with AI, instead of being controlled by AI.”
Gwinnett officials didn’t have to look far for examples of longstanding industries whose work had evolved to include an AI twist.
An agricultural machinery company headquartered in the county now calls itself a technology company, and utilizes self-driving tractors. An assistant superintendent stopped in at a nearby café where robots mixed the drinks, and the man behind the counter was an engineer, not a barista.
That drove home to district officials that the “kids who graduated our high school who might have gone with traditional trades [in the past] are going to need some more technical AI-driven skills,” Holloway said.
‘We want them to be represented and to have a voice’
What’s more, they see embracing AI as particularly important for a district as diverse as Gwinnett.
It’s been well-documented that “intelligent” machines reflect the same biases as the humans programming them. Facial recognition software powered by AI has had trouble picking up darker complexions. AI-driven risk-assessment algorithms used to figure out criminal sentences tend to make harsher predictions about Black defendants than white ones.
Those problems might not be so prevalent, experts say, if more of the engineers behind the technology came from the demographic groups that make up much of Gwinnett’s student population.
“We serve the students who are most underrepresented in the technology industry,” Holloway said. Gwinnett’s students come from more than 180 countries, about a third are Black, and another third are Hispanic or Latino. About a third come from economically disadvantaged families.
“We want them to be represented and have a voice” in how AI develops over the next few decades, when it’s expected to take on an even more central role in daily life, Holloway said.
One of the biggest challenges, which Holloway expects to be ongoing: There are little, if any, curricular materials out there for teaching AI to K-12 students, particularly for educators hoping to spotlight the technology in a range of subjects and grade levels.
When the district began considering its approach, “no one else was thinking about this holistic idea of AI readiness, where it’s embedded in the classes,” Holloway said. Experts “were talking about specific technical AI courses, like computer science courses.”
The problem is that not every kid “can take those elective classes. So, every kid doesn’t get access to AI, if you only address it through an elective,” Holloway said. “But if I embed it into all of the classes a student takes now, every single kid is going to get access to that critical learning that they need for future readiness. We just needed to create it ourselves.”
To inform that work, Gwinnett school district officials reached out to higher education institutions, such as the nearby Gwinnett College, Georgia Institute of Technology, and University of Georgia in addition to other schools outside the state like Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The district also turned to tech companies such as Apple, Google, IBM, and Microsoft as well as nonprofit groups AI4K12, CSForAll, and aiEDU for help.
“Even though we are doing the heavy lifting, we were lucky to have a ton of people who were interested,” Holloway said.
Seckinger offers a series of three progressively sophisticated elective classes focused on AI. The first will provide a broad overview of the technology, including its history and evolution, impact on society, plus an introduction to more technical aspects. The second class will go deeper, and the third will have a significant project-based component, allowing students to put their knowledge of AI towards solving real world problems.
Teacher Jason Hurd is not only leading the courses, he’s playing a big part in writing them.
That’s meant “developing something that doesn’t exist anywhere in the country, and potentially, the world,” Hurd said.
Memorie Reesman, Seckinger’s principal, expects a significant chunk of students will take at least one AI course. But she doesn’t anticipate every Seckinger graduate will wind up in a Silicon Valley programming gig.
School and district officials think of Seckinger’s students in three different buckets: swimmers, who will get broad exposure to a range of AI-related topics across the curriculum; snorkelers, who might take a couple of the AI electives or delve deeper into the topic as part of another class; and scuba-divers, who will spend much of high school immersed in AI.
In all classes, teachers will be explicit about how their content—social studies, or even physical education—touches on a range of topics key to helping students become “AI ready,” including data science, mathematical reasoning, creative problem solving, and ethics.
“What I love about it is it allows us as teachers that don’t teach just AI to be able to recognize that there’s so much that we do already” that touches on the concepts behind the technology, said Cheri Nations, who teaches environmental engineering at Seckinger. “It’s [about] being more intentional and authentic with it and tying it and making connections for the kids. Then, as we become more comfortable, we can start doing more of that deep diving.”
Teaching AI will be part of the school’s culture
Reesman has previewed how all this can work in her previous job as the principal of Glenn C. Jones Middle School, the feeder middle school in the AI cluster. The school started piloting the AI program about two years ago.
At first, Jones middle school students and teachers just played around with a few AI-related challenges during the 20-minute “homeroom” slot in their schedule, Reesman said, including a program from Amazon that allowed students to practice coding robots to do work in a warehouse.
Later, teachers in all subjects began mixing a bit of AI-related content into their classes. One of Reesman’s favorite examples: Seventh grade science students took a concept that’s long been part of their curriculum—genetics—and used coding to figure out the probability of inheriting certain genetic traits.
There are going to be “some days where you’re gonna see [AI] really heavily” in the cluster schools, Holloway said. But “it may not always be like a very obvious, hit you in the face [realization], like, ‘Oh, we’re doing this in AI today.’ A lot of it’s going to show up in the culture of the school.”
That culture extends even to Seckinger’s furniture, which isn’t your typical desks in rows. Instead, most classrooms use a more flexible seating model, Holloway said.
“They’re in circles, they’re in groups. Their work is all over their wall,” she said. “They’re having discussions and conversations and you might not know where the teacher is in the room because they may just be mixed in and talking with the kids.” The goal is to make collaborative leadership skills and creative problem solving a central piece of every class.
Helping teachers make the cultural pivot will require time and experimentation, Holloway added.
“Professional development doesn’t fix everything [and] there’s just a lot of priorities right now in the world of education,” Holloway said. She’s explained to teachers, “‘we’re going to try something different, and if we fail, that’s OK because we’re going to pause and learn and try to improve next time.’”
Eventually, Gwinnett would like to see the curriculum model used throughout the district. And it could be poised to spread even further. The Georgia Department of Education worked with Gwinnett to write academic standards for the new material so that schools anywhere in the Peach State can launch their own AI courses.
South, of ISTE, expects to see more schools around the country adopt AI as a curricular focus.
“There are entire universities devoted to AI in China,” he said. “This is already a central part of our society, and we need to prepare citizens to understand it and design it. There’s no doubt in my mind this is going to grow.”
A version of this article appeared in the August 31, 2022 edition of Education Week as Artificial Intelligence Is All Around Us. So This District Designed Its Own AI Curriculum