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Reasons to Feel Hopeful about AI at School, with Ben Farrell

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Ten years ago I took a friendly stranger on a tour of my house. My husband and I were leaving our school in California with our toddler to move to the East Coast and start a new adventure. This friendly stranger was taking over my husband’s job, and he and his wife and toddler were moving into our house. A few days ago, when I hopped on a call with Ben Farrell of the New England Innovation Academy to talk about artificial intelligence, he entered into the chat “I think we might have met before.”

Yep, it turns out that my guest today actually moved into my exact house in California when I left, and took over my husband’s job. Small world, eh? When an acquaintance connected us for this interview, neither of us had any idea we had met before.

Ben Farrell, besides having great taste in California schools, brings a wealth of experience working with students into our conversation today. He’s been a dean, a head of school, an upper school director, and more, and in his current position at the New England Innovation Academy, he has the job of helping guide a program modeled on human centered design and thoughtful innovation. I’m excited for you to join us today to talk about how students feel about artificial intelligence, how we can work with them to design our approach to it, and why we can feel hopeful that artificial intelligence has the potential to bring more voices to the table in our world, not less.

Let’s dive in.

You can listen in to this episode 176 below, click here to tune in on any podcast player, or read on for the full post.

Meet the New England Innovation Academy (and get ideas from them!)

Ben works at the New England Innovation Academy, a brand new school looking to teach innovation – well – in innovative ways. Let’s take a look at some of the interesting things going on there, because so many of them provide models you could experiment with at your school.

For starters, NEIA puts a focus on integrated curriculum, developing units across departments. For example, while learning about Shakespeare in ELA, students might be studying the dimensions of the Globe stage in math and performing the Bard in theater. Teachers find it easier to collaborate because of the way their workspace is designed – all departments have a shared space, the Integration Room, where they can share ideas and use the whiteboard walls to jot down their collaboration concepts.

The students have several creative spaces as well – the innovation studio for prototyping their concepts, and a large makerspace known around school as “the hive.”

NEIA hosts an entrepreneurship club, and its students take on real challenges the world has to offer. This year, they’ve been helping a local mall strategize ways to improve its appeal with teenagers. In an era of online shopping, they’re confronting the question – why would anyone go to the mall?

No matter the group or program at NEIA, the approach is the same: human centered design. Students approach real problems with a lens of empathy, considering the needs of the stakeholders truly affected by the issue as they ideate, prototype, and redesign their concepts. Personally, I’m fascinated by NEIA’s final event of the year, the NEIA Gala, in which students launched companies and sold their first prototypes, raising nearly $10,000. Talk about a real world audience for student work!

Approaching AI WITH Students

NEIA is uniquely suited to work collaboratively on the issue of AI with their students, but really, it’s a path open to all schools. Early in 2023, Ben sat down with the older students at NEIA to talk about CHAT GPT and the role they thought it should play in school work, education, and writing.

One student talked about how it could mean the death of original ideas.

Others said you shouldn’t use it to write papers for you.

Another had perhaps the most profound – and hopeful – insight: “It’s going to teach us to ask better questions.”

Ben knew it wasn’t going to solve the problem to ban the use of AI at NEIA. The students’ openness and insight impressed him, and he became interested in helping them collaborate with kids at other schools to talk about the future of AI in education, develop a thoughtful approach to the way they wanted to use it in their own lives, and then share their concepts with the wider world. Essentially, NEIA wants to empower its students to become thought leaders in the rapidly developing conversation around AI in education.

YES! What an intriguing approach! Now, what might this look like for you at your school? Perhaps you could have your students do a PBL or design-thinking project on AI, working to research possible approaches, read others’ responses, discuss ideas with students in other places, interview folks in education and in the tech industry, and eventually find a way to share a formal opinion with the world. Students could write op-eds, present to the school board, be guests on local television shows or national podcasts, the sky’s the limit in this new field.

Using AI at NEIA

NEIA is already exploring uses for AI within its different departments, slowly and carefully finding ways to make AI useful without letting it overwhelm original thoughts. In college counseling, it can help students with the basics of resume design. In the humanities, it’s showing itself to be useful in helping with constructing effective sentences and well-structured paragraphs.

As Ben puts it, AI has the potential to help bring more voices to the table. Maybe for students, like Ben used to be, who have trouble putting their ideas and inspiration into the written form, AI can help them with the bolts and gears, while the students keep control over the genius and the process.

It doesn’t sounds all bad, right? There are so many reasons to hope that AI will benefit our students, especially if we take a thoughtful approach now in how we talk about it with them and decide – together – how to use it.

Learn more about NEIA and their Program

Visit the NEIA Website to explore!

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