Proposed course on artificial intelligence sparks debate in Greensburg Salem
A proposed seventh-grade course focused on artificial intelligence is part of the Greensburg Salem School District’s effort to fill a gap in computer science-related courses at its middle school.
The course was the subject of debate at last week’s school board town hall meeting, with member Emily Miller suggesting that seventh graders do not have the required training for the course. She feels it would be more appropriate as an elective in high school.
The issue could also come up when the board meets on Wednesday.
“While it’s probably very interesting, it’s not appropriate for 12-year-olds,” Miller said of the course offered – “Computer Science 2: Artificial Intelligence in Our World.”
At this point in their careers, she said, Greensburg Salem students will not have studied the Bill of Rights or have experience in persuasive writing, which she thinks they will need to address course topics, including monitoring issues.
“A small portion of the course would talk about artificial intelligence computing,” District Superintendent Ken Bissell said. “Most of it would be about the social implications of AI on (students’) lives.
“Our children are already influenced by AI programs. This course will teach them about: How does it work? How was it designed? How did a part get out of control?
“How do you recognize that, and how do you work in a world where that’s going to be part of their life, good or bad?”
Robin Savage, a member of the board of trustees, opposed deferring these technology-related subjects until high school.
“It’s too late because when (students) come in, if they have an interest, then you’re playing catch-up,” Savage said. “Then we lag behind what other students are doing in other districts, other states, other countries. I’m not going to hold our kids back.
“With artificial intelligence, our students are interfacing with it on many levels, certainly as early as seventh grade,” said Cassie Quigley, associate director of the University of Pittsburgh. “Students are really curious about these things.”
As long as it’s research-based and teachers are properly trained, she said, an AI-related course can inspire students to learn how to handle the technology.
“I can see that having some understanding of a student’s rights and understanding how to form an argument is an important part of learning a subject,” she said, “but our students are learning those things other ways, not just at school.
“They have a very nuanced view of their rights. I haven’t won an argument with a college kid yet.
Bissell said the lesson plans are provided free of charge to Greensburg Salem through the STEM project. Indeed, the district’s poverty level aligns with the nonprofit’s mission to provide equitable access to computing and STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) education.
According to US Census figures, nearly 9% of Greensburg’s population and nearly 13% of Salem Township’s live at the poverty line.
Miller expressed concern that the course would be biased in favor of AI, as tech-focused entities fund the nonprofit.
Bissell replied, “We get the basic design and layout of the curriculum, but our teachers still have the autonomy to work with that.”
If the board approves the course, Bissell said, all seventh-graders should take it. But, he said, if a parent objects, a student could skip the AI instruction and instead have an extra period of a subject like art or music.
He said the college’s new courses represent an effort to bridge the gap between introductory STEM education at the elementary level and high school courses in computer programming and computer-aided design technology.
From grades 6 through 8, he said, “We had a lack of kids continuing to talk about computers.”
In a new sixth-grade course, students work with Scratch, a coding language designed for kids that started in 2002 as an initiative of the MIT Media Lab.
A proposed course for eighth grade would expose students to basic programming and working with digital media.
Board member Brian Conway disagreed.
“Scratch is a great way to start,” he said. “You learn the logic of programming. Yes, it’s simple programming, but you learn the process to understand what’s going on under the hood.