If you were at Castilleja School last week, you might have spotted a series of small posters throughout campus, each posing a weighty question about technology.
"How much smarter can AI get?"
"What will happen to those who lose their jobs to AI?"
"How will AI support our modern lives?"
"Are robots more intelligent than humans?"
Every sixth-grade student at the all-girls private school had come up with her own inquiry related to artificial intelligence (AI) and created posters — using an old-fashioned technology of rubber stamps and paper. Artificial intelligence was the theme of this year's Global Week at Castilleja, an annual week during which the entire school participates in activities devoted to a single topic. Past themes have included migration, art, youth activism, equity in education and climate change.
This year, the school chose artificial intelligence, coinciding with the debut of Castilleja's first-ever course on the subject — a rarity in K-12 education, even in 2019 — and preparations to adopt a computer-science graduation requirement next year.
The school's overarching goal, administrators and educators said, is not to solely teach coding or provide a pipeline to tech careers but rather to help them understand a powerful force that is already and will continue to impact their lives regardless of what they pursue after Castilleja.
"If they don't understand the technology, it's going to impact their future (anyway)," said Kyle Barriger, a longtime mathematics teacher who created the artificial intelligence elective. "If they understand it, then maybe they have a chance to influence it."
For the first time, an AI class
Before he came to Castilleja, Barriger worked for two decades in the high-tech industry.
Two years ago, he said, "it became really obvious to me that AI was going to take off because of the comput(ing) power and the availability of data that were really the big impediments to it for the last 30, 40 years."
He proposed an elective on artificial intelligence at the same time administrators were considering it as a future Global Week theme. Six juniors and seniors took his seminar-style class last fall, learning first how the underlying technology works, then its applications and its potential benefits and risks. They studied key artificial-intelligence concepts, like machine learning, neural networks and deep learning, and examined the role that AI plays in the very technologies they consume — the filtering of data on Facebook and Instagram and predictive analytics on Netflix, for example. Intentionally, there was little instruction on how to code, Barriger said.
For their capstone research projects, each student selected a topic of interest and developed her own 5-to-10-year technology forecast for how AI might affect that application, considering social, political, economic and ethical implications.
Senior Divya Tadimeti decided to investigate how drones will affect food delivery, a nascent but growing industry, she said. Another student researched how artificial intelligence is being used in bail assessments, to predict whether someone will show up in court, and another teenager examined potential uses for military defense satellites.
For her forecast, Tadimeti predicted that drone-delivered food will take off after two or three years but only after issues like privacy and governmental regulations are addressed.
Tadimeti said all high schoolers should be educated about AI in some way: "No matter what you're interested in, AI is going to affect you in the future."
Barriger agreed, particularly given that this generation of "digital natives" — ever-attached to smartphones and their apps — have little understanding of the technology that powers them, he said.
"My discovery at the beginning of the semester was that they're also digitally naive," he said. "I don't think we can overstate the importance of understanding the technology."
Barriger plans to offer the elective again next year, but he hopes artificial intelligence will become part of the fabric of other academic subjects rather than a standalone course, which is still uncommon in K-12 schools. Barriger's class is only one of handful offered across the country, according to David Touretzky, a Carnegie Mellon University professor who chairs an education initiative for the Palo Alto-based Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence (AAAI). Touretzy's initiative aims to lay the groundwork for national guidelines for K-12 AI instruction.
"We hope to see many more schools including AI into their curriculum in the future," Touretzky said. "But the teachers doing it today are truly the pioneers."
Barriger, for his part, is considering how artificial intelligence could apply to his statistics classes and is working with the head of the school's computer-science and engineering department to integrate machine learning into Castilleja's new computer-science requirement.
At Global Week, the future is now
Last week, Castilleja's campus transformed into an artificial-intelligence conference, with speakers from Google, Facebook, Stanford University, the American Civil Liberties Union and The New York Times sharing their expertise with middle and high school students.
On Monday afternoon, the school's gym was packed with students and faculty, including Head of School Nanci Kauffman, working through an exercise led by Carissa Carter, director of teaching and learning at the Stanford d.school. She brought artificial intelligence to life through a design-thinking challenge: Groups of four were tasked with designing a visit to Silicon Valley for someone new to the area.
The teams selected specific personality traits and place of residence for their person — such as a quiet and introspective person from the United Kingdom — and then decided if the person was either interviewing for a job at Stanford Shopping Center or here to visit Great America with a group of friends. Other constraints included the weather and a specific limitation chosen for the person, like tardiness or the inability to understand English.
The teams set about designing a highly personalized experience for their consumer, considering all of the data points, from that person's favorite Starbucks drink and the music he or she likes to local weather and transportation patterns. They learned six common machine-learning algorithms and then had to choose the one best-suited to scale their plan to 10,000 people. (One group of students chose regression, a set of statistical processes for estimating the relationships among variables, to predict the weather for the day their consumer would be visiting.)
At the end, the students considered the worst and best case scenarios by writing alternatively "fantastic" and "terrible" news headlines.
Other activities throughout the week included visiting interactive art pieces that use machine learning, hearing from Castilleja alumnae who now study or work in the field and learning about the ethical implications for governments, companies and the public. Barriger also led a week-long workshop with seniors on image recognition.
Student Lia Spencer was fascinated by the non-technological applications she learned during Global Week, such as the use of artificial intelligence to predict risk for cardiovascular disease or disease in crops.
"It's really cool realizing that computers shouldn't always necessarily replace humans, but they can be used to supplement humans in ways that are really useful," she said.
Administrators had considered artificial intelligence as a Global Week theme for years but didn't feel prepared to offer it until this year, with Barriger's new course and the upcoming computer-science requirement, said Stacey Kertsman, Castilleja's dean of equity education and social impact and director of the Center for Awareness, Compassion and Engagement.
"When you have a technology or any kind of tool that is now so ubiquitous on our planet, we need to figure out how does that tool connect to the mission of the school and our goals for how we're developing women leaders," she said. "It felt like a really important time to say, 'Girls, these are the skills you need to learn, and these are the thoughts that align with our mission to use those tools more effectively.'"
Staff intentionally created a program that would appeal as much to students passionate about technology as those it might alienate. They brought in three artists to create the interactive art exhibit on campus, which included a facial analysis tool that predicts your age, gender and emotions in real time when you sit in front of it, and a "Lost in Google Translation" piece that translates any English phrase into Thai and then back to English to reveal "shortcomings in both humans' and machine's capabilities," the exhibit description reads.
Speakers also addressed diversity in the artificial-intelligence industry, bias in data and privacy and free-speech issues.
"When we do something like a Global Week dedicated to AI, it's not to get kids to become computer scientists," Kertsman said. "It's to help them understand, this is an incredible force that is shaping the way we humans exist and co-exist with our environment, with each other, and we need to understand it so we can make wise choices."