Learning artificial intelligence in high school is possible

Lucía is 16 years old and has been using her cell phone for almost everything for four years. But this year, in her Artificial Intelligence (AI) class at her high school, she has used it for something she never imagined was possible. Through the camera, microphone and touch screen of her own smartphone, and using a free app, she has turned it into a pet robot, which interacts with her as if it were alive: it asks for food, attention, to play with the…

She has achieved all this by programming herself with the Robobo educational robot in teaching unit 9 of the AI+ project, dedicated to the interaction between human and robot. This is just one example of the kind of activities that she has designed by the AI+ team over the past three years with the goal of creating an AI curriculum for students between the ages of 15 and 17 (High School).

And why teach artificial intelligence to pre-university students? Because young people must already understand how it works, and thus be prepared to be able to live in a world increasingly impacted by it, in addition to being able to train to be the future AI engineers.

The AI+ project

AI+ is an educational innovation project that has been funded by the European Union through the Erasmus+ program. It encompasses six secondary schools in five different countries (Spain, Italy, Slovenia, Lithuania and Finland).

The project is led by a group of experts from the Universidade da Coruña (UDC), which has implemented specific didactic units that make up the study plan. These contain theoretical concepts and practical activities on eight basic areas of artificial intelligence:

  1. Perception.

  2. Performance.

  3. Representation.

  4. Learning.

  5. Reasoning.

  6. Motivation.

  7. Collective artificial intelligence.

  8. Social impact.

The units have been reviewed by the teachers of the six centers and tested with their students, which provided feedback to the UDC team to improve them. Once ready, they have been published on the project website to make them available to the entire teaching community.

The following table shows a possible organization of the study plan in two courses, based on the didactic units developed. As can be seen, not all subjects have the same teaching load, but it is proportional to the relevance they have in the training of students at this age.

AI+ Project Curriculum

The ‘intelligent agent’

The artificial intelligence approach followed in the AI+ project is that of the intelligent agent. Artificial intelligence systems are presented to students as autonomous computational systems capable of sensing their environment, real or simulated, and taking actions to meet their goals.

This perspective is in line with the recommendations of the European Commission and the Ministry of Science, Innovation and Universities for future digital education plans, focused on “specific AI”, that is, the one that faces real environments that solve problems specific to people.

Smartphone, AI tool

In order to implement this approach in the classroom, it is necessary to have elements hardware specific. In our case, we decided to use the student’s smartphone as the basic technological element for all the didactic material developed.

Today’s smartphones have the necessary technological level in terms of sensors, actuators, computing power and communications, and they will also have it in the future given their continuous updating. In addition, the vast majority of high school students have their own smartphonewhich significantly reduces the cost of introducing this discipline in the classroom and equalizes regions with different economic capacity.

Real problems

To introduce the eight topics of AI discussed above, students are faced with real problems belonging to three specific fields of application:

  1. Smart apps for phones.

  2. Autonomous robotics.

  3. Smart environments (internet of things).

Although many other fields could have been selected, these are very representative of the current domain of AI, and all of them can be developed in schools using a smartphone. In the case of AI+, they have worked using App Inventor, the Robobo robot and the Home Assistant system.

STEM approach

The AI+ curriculum follows a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) approach, as specific AI requires knowledge from different disciplines to develop real solutions.

Each didactic unit presents a challenge or project that must be faced through a project-based cooperative learning approach, where students are organized in groups and carry out the typical steps of an engineering project. Learning is proactive: the most relevant theoretical concepts are reinforced because they are necessary for the practical resolution of the challenge (learning by doing).

High school offer

Apart from the impact achieved in the institutes directly involved in the project, this initiative was taken as the basis for an official high school subject Introduction to AIoffered to all secondary schools in the autonomous community of Galicia in the 2021/22 academic year.

But AI+ has tried to achieve longer-term social impact. On the one hand, by providing free access to quality formal educational material, so that the economically less developed regions can catch up with the more advanced ones.

On the other hand, by creating these materials through gender-balanced work teams, avoiding possible biases, and presenting the contents with a multidisciplinary approach, with the aim of “hooking” more women to technological studies.

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