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How Erica Used the AI PBL Project to give her Students Voice

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It’s never a bad thing when your classroom innovation lands you at a press conference with your state’s department of education! That’s what happened to today’s guest, Erica Kempf. She decided to try out the project-based learning unit I designed about the ethical use of artificial intelligence, and along the way, she and her students made it their own and became the go-to sources for AI in their district.

They learned a lot in the process, and I’m so excited to have Erica here to share her story with you. Before we dive in, just a heads up that you can grab the free PBL AI curriculum set that Erica and her students used right here. So if you get inspired as you listen, you can download this unit for yourself and give it a try!

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

Meet Erica and her School

Erica Kempf is a teacher in Ohio, in a diverse district, at a school with 1500 students. She sees about 100 of them each day, mainly sophomores.

Setting the Stage for a Project Focused on AI

Coming into the year, Erica knew that she had a curriculum gap with her advanced sophomores. She had dropped a summer reading unit, leaving her with space for something new. Meanwhile, there was so much talk in her department about the possibility that CHAT GPT would mean the end of all authentic writing from students.

Erica wanted to learn more about CHAT GPT, but hadn’t really had time to explore it. She decided to learn about it together with her students, and prepared to launch the PBL AI Unit even though she’d never been on the AI platform until a few days before she introduced the new unit to her students.

Her goals were to give her students a chance to have a true voice in the use of AI in their district, to do their work for an authentic audience, to come away with a better understanding of AI, and to become the messengers to other students and teachers for what their use of AI could look like.

project-based learning unit

How Erica Launched the AI PBL Unit

Erica started by sharing the two Ted Talks in the unit curriculum – which showcase starkly opposing perspectives on the role AI can play in humanity’s future.

Her students got so excited. “It blew my students’ minds,” she said. Together, she and her students realized they were interested in the role of AI beyond the ethics of CHAT GPT. Then, they shifted the scope of their project, deciding to examine the role AI would play in education in general.

Already, Erica was allowing her students’ interests and passion to guide the project, giving them voice from day one.

Some of her students came in that day telling her that she “broke” one of her students (in that igniting-the-imagination-and-passion-for-learning-kind-of-way). As one of her students said to her, “He has not stopped talking about it, Mrs. Kempf, he was at lunch and he was like ‘she broke me, my mind is blown.'”

Finding Meaningful Topics in AI

From there, her class began looking at all the different roles AI was playing across platforms – even bringing in a screenshot of a conversation with Snapchat’s AI about the project they were embarking on.

Erica’s students developed their own research questions, generating as many as they could at first, gathered on a Padlet, and then starting introductory broad-level internet-based research.

Here are some of the topics that emerged:

First, the role of AI for preschoolers.

Second, use AI for students with special needs.

Third, the implications of AI for the college application process.

Foruth, examine the line between creative, helpful use of AI and cheating.

Erica let her students choose to work in groups or go solo, again giving them voice about how they felt they’d work best.

Building Research Skills for the AI Project-Based Learning Unit

Erica reached out to her school’s media specialist to help guide students with using online research databases and learning to vet sources for their credibility and accuracy. Students learned to put their sources through the “C.R.A.P.” test.

After her colleague requested that she create a practice for students to use their new method, Erica tasked CHAT GPT with creating that practice. Though she could soon see many flaws in CHAT GPT’s product, Erica gave it to students anyway.

As she expected, it didn’t work well. The activity kept sending students to a site that didn’t work, but Erica let her students struggle for a little while before revealing that CHAT GPT had created the activity and, in many ways, failed. This led them into more interesting conversations about Chat GPT as a tool.

Reaching out to Experts

After building their research questions and learning to use the electronic research sources available to them, students were ready for Erica’s next step – finding, in her word, “real life human beings” to talk to.

They invited experts from around their district, and spent a week in class talking with the assistant superintendent, the curriculum director from the district office, the principal, and representatives from the technology office.

So cool, right?!

Students also began reaching out to experts on their own, after going through the guiding resources in the PBL unit on emailing, calling, and interviewing experts.

project-based learning unit

Some students hopped on a conference call with a professor at Ohio State University. Others interviewed the Director of Learning for Students with Special Needs.

Little by little, Erica’s students joined the conversation on AI that was happening in their community.

project-based learning unit

Realizing No One has “The Answer”

As the students spoke with more and more education leaders, members of both sides of the conversation realized that no one really knew what to do with AI in education.

The adults had been feeling terrified, thinking that the kids were way ahead of them.

The kids had been avoiding it, thinking that they couldn’t touch it without cheating.

Everyone wanted to know what was fair, what was safe, and what was helpful.

As the conversation unfolded, the district curriculum director came in and asked Erica’s students to help define the new tech skill expectations for kids ages K-12 in their community.

As the students continued to talk with the adults and research the possibilities, their voices became an important part of the district conversation on technology and AI use.

Of Course there were Challenges to Meet

Erica’s students were used to performing well on every assessment, checking off clear boxes and getting clear grades. Erica noted that it wasn’t always easy for them to deal with the messy nature of PBL, where things are not always defined in advance.

Because it was early in the year, she hadn’t had a chance to build as much trust with them as she would have preferred, but she just kept telling them “we are figuring it out together” and indeed, they did.

While it wasn’t smooth and easy, realizing they could be part of the unfolding conversation on AI in a real and meaningful way impacted the class, boosting their creative confidence and helping them see what they could accomplish.

Final Products of the AI Project-Based Learning Unit

While Erica feels the strongest takeaway for her students was the actual process of working with experts on a problem they could help to solve, some students also produced truly meaningful final products.

One group created a video that went out to all the teachers of students with special needs talking about how AI could concretely provide help for them in their role. Lastly, members of that group eventually joined Erica in participating in a press conference on AI in education with Ohio’s Lieutenant Governor!

Erica’s Advice for You

However, Erica’s biggest advice is to remember that when it comes to PBL, a little bit of chaos is good, and it’s helpful, and it’s where some of the best ideas come from. The goal isn’t a perfect final product, it’s about trying something new and giving the kids a chance to see that their voices matter.

Her students realized that the adults in their lives WILL stop and listen to them if they’ve spent the time gathering their voices in a way that gives them something to say. This was a HUGE and powerful takeaway. You might also like the blog post on Helping Students Consider the Ethics of AI with this Free PBL Unit.

If you’re type A (like Erica and many of her students) remember her mantra, “We are figuring it out together.” Her kids came out the other side of the process trusting her more and seeing that they really could figure things out along the way. And so can yours!

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I'm Betsy

I’ll help you find the creative ELA strategies that will light up your classroom. Get ready for joyful teaching!







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