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Artificial intelligence is already reshaping how some Colorado students learn. Is your school on the cutting edge?

Model figurines and cars are part of sophomore Victor Osymyan’s demonstration of an image recognition program using AI at the St. Vrain Valley School District’s Innovation Center on March 5. (Jenny Brundin/CPR News)

Victor Oshmyan, a sophomore at Niwot High, clicks his mouse to engage a car. It’s aimed at little model pedestrians. But he stops the car in the nick of time before it runs them over.

“It actually sees the pedestrians, but the AI model isn't strong enough to recognize that all of them are people, so it was just going to run them over,” he said during a demonstration with a toy car and the figurines.

But then Oshmyan shows how the car fully stops when it recognizes him, a real person, just like he’s programmed.

“It didn't move because it didn't want to run me over,” he said.

Oshmyan is an early adopter, one of a group of students so intrigued by artificial intelligence that they’re on a special after-school AI project team at the St. Vrain Valley School District’s Innovation Center in Longmont. They develop and design products for clients and get paid to do it. These students are at the vanguard of discovering how artificial intelligence works in its many forms but are also helping educators learn how it may change instruction.

‘Cognitive dissonance’

When artificial intelligence came on the scene, Colorado’s school districts tended to fall into three buckets. Some immediately banned any use of it. The vast majority seemed interested — but too bogged down in other challenges.

A couple of districts blasted out of the gates trying to teach their students about AI — like St. Vrain.

Teenagers already tend to know more about AI than adults, even if just for things like altering their image to look like a cute animal. Students are getting the message online that this technology will change the way we live and the world of work.

“And then they walk into school and we tell them, ‘Whatever you do, don't use this,’ ” said Rebecca Holmes, CEO and president of the Colorado Education Initiative, which has created a task force to help districts incorporate AI. “It’s just cognitive dissonance to the teenage brain. It’s the kind of eye roll from teenagers that we should really pay attention to because they're right.”

Oshmyan used a program called AutoAutoAI to code the car to detect a person with an image he plotted. He also programmed it to swerve at yellow lights and stop and play “Happy Birthday” on red lights. Oshmyan is also working on a pizza bot to take orders.

“It will help pizza workers not spend so much time on the phone,” he said.

Nearby, his classmate Malcom Smith demonstrates a classification system he built using AI, which can solve patterns at incredibly fast speeds. It can identify hundreds of unique parts for Vex Robotics that younger students use to build. His project is to help students, but also their teachers.

“That's a lot of pressure on the teacher because the teacher has to know all of these different parts and that can be very tricky,” he said.

Smith holds up a Lego-like piece. A machine voice identifies the part and describes what the part can be used for.

This is the kind of real-world learning that AI can foster.

“I feel like AI is a powerful tool that will be incorporated in the future a lot,” said Oshmyan. “And I feel like understanding it better will help us work with it better so it doesn't just take over. And I feel like it's better to understand it right now than later.”

Another student said he’d love to one day develop an AI that could help recognize cancerous moles.

Then there are the ethics of using AI

Marek Pearl, 15, who is more interested in engineering robotics rather than a career in AI, still decided to take a course called “Intro to AI,” which includes the ethics of AI. It sounded interesting and he wanted to learn how it could help him in his daily life like writing emails. But here’s how he may use it at school: If the assignment is to write a short paragraph on the War of 1812 and some major historical figures, he’d ask for an AI platform:

“What was the Battle of 1812?”

Like other students, Pearl said AI tends to explain things in a simpler way to start out with.

“I try my best to use AI as an inspiration, rather than a writing tool,” he said.

He’d get the historical figures' names and then do his own research on each individual. A lot of the students say they use it this way. Shaffer Piersol, a freshman at Niwot High School, uses AI to help her study. Many students use the “Quizlet” studying tool, which now employs artificial intelligence.

“I don't want to go through all 20 pages of a textbook to make 10 Quizlet questions. So Quizlet will be like, ‘Hey, if you just upload the PDF, well, we can do it for you.’ ”

Piersol has strong feelings about using AI to rip off artwork, something she’s seen done to her favorite artist, “which is not cool to do.”

But for a lot of other teenagers, the temptation to cheat is real.

“A lot of my classmates use ChatGPT to write their essays, so no matter how I think, people are always going to do whatever they want.”

Pearl, on the other hand, thinks cheating is not easy for students to get away with.

“Almost all teachers can tell, like, if they've seen your writing before, they know, huh, that person doesn't write like that.”

Teachers have told students explicitly, that if they use ChatGPT to write their essays, they’re getting an “F.”

Students are also learning AI’s (at least ChatGPT’s) limitations

Nicholas Umpierrez, a senior, is working with his team on a project for the city of Longmont – building an underwater robot for water collection. He wants to know the ideal flow rate the machine should use. He’s used ChatGPT for coding already so decides to ask the AI about the flow rate. AI spits out an answer. Umpierrez gives it more parameters; he gets the same answer.

He decides he should probably go back to the scientists in the city to get more information.

Nicholas’ teacher Nathan Wilcox interjects, recognizing an AI “teachable moment.” He praises Umpierrez for realizing that ChatGPT has huge limitations when it comes to hyper-specific questions.

“Do we know that's the most recent, new, data? Do we know that that's the optimal data? Do we know if that data was collected related to water sampling for this type of purpose?” the teacher asks.

Instead, it’s the Longmont scientists who will know the ideal flow rate based on research studies. The exchange is yet another opportunity for learning about an extraordinarily powerful tool that is rapidly changing K-12 education.

Where do school districts start?

Joe McBreen, SVVSD’s assistant superintendent of innovation, said districts leaning into AI doesn’t mean accepting everything about it, lock, stock, and barrel. But he said AI is only going to become more pervasive and powerful.

“I think we're ethically and morally compelled to prepare our kids for a competitive future, where they not only are aware of AI but they're empowered with next-level exposure and experiences so that they can confidently live in this world,” he said. “That begins today.”

Schools can start by teaching kids the difference between a traditional search engine and generative AI, which can include images, music, and code, or large language model AIs – which produce text and don’t require computer science knowledge to use.

“The world's most popular programming language right now is English. Literally, you can talk to the ChatGPT and get the code,” McBreen said. “And so what sorts of opportunities does that open up?”

Other AI models can be used for data prediction and image recognition.

Districts must start with a set of educators who are aware, empowered, and skilled enough to help students, said McBreen.

St. Vrain, one of the first districts to offer professional development to educators, launched a soft introduction to AI for teachers, encouraging them to complete a bingo board that has them use AI in fun ways like finding a recipe or planning a trip. They earn credits for completing the cards. Along with coaching on safety and privacy in using AI, the district is continually analyzing whether there are gaps in its current cheating and plagiarism policy.

The district has created a task force of teachers and district leaders who are putting together an eighth-grade introduction to technology that focuses heavily on AI. But they’d eventually like to have exposure to AI in all grades.

Recently, Deagan Andrews, a curriculum leader for Greeley Evans School District 6, chatted with McBreen about the best way to begin developing an AI pathway for his district.

AI is painted with a broad brush, explained McBreen, but in reality, there are many different strands to it: from autonomous driving and AI in cybersecurity to how people use large language models to accelerate what they do. Other questions to consider: What is the right level of programming knowledge for students? How can they use AI to advance their own projects?

Many are worried that not all students will learn how to use AI

A new nationwide survey by the Center for Democracy and Technology finds massive changes in teacher and student use of generative AI. However, it shows teachers struggling with navigating many questions around responsible and safe student use and teachers distrustful of students resulting in more students getting into trouble. Many educators are stuck at that level, never mind how to teach students how to use AI as a tool and for application-based questions, much like the calculator did. The vast majority of educators are unequipped.

Greeley district’s Andrews believes schools never really helped students effectively leverage calculators or even Google.

“And now we take something that's 10 times more sophisticated. How are we going to help support students to really leverage it?”

That’s where the Colorado Education Initiative comes in. The nonprofit will produce a statewide plan this summer identifying AI policies and practices needed for schools, as well as training for teachers. Rebecca Holmes is aware equity gaps are already starting.

“If a kid happens to be in a district that's forward moving on something, they get lots of education about it and if they don't, they don't.”

Adeel Khan, a former Colorado educator and founder and CEO of Magic School AI, said it’s crucial that AI become a competency in school, and not one that only affluent parents can buy their children.

“We need to lead the charge here and not make the same mistakes of not bringing one-to-one laptops to schools (until) decades after they were being used in every professional work environment.”

Holmes hopes to encourage the districts that have banned the use of AI to think of that as a first move.

“Please don't let it be your last move and start to figure out how else you can engage with this and support young people in engaging with it.”

To read more stories from Colorado Public Radio, visit www.cpr.org.