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Thinking deeply about artificial intelligence.

Feb 2, 2014 | By: Lauren Weston

Thinking deeply about artificial intelligence. thumbnail

As some of you may know, the Through My Window project was started in 2006 when the novel was written.  From 2008 to 2010, the original three activities were designed and displayed on our initial website.  This process of creation and design allowed many ideas to be put on the table and then eventually weeded through.  But the basic structure had been laid out:  we wanted adventures that drew on the engineering ideas from the Talk to Me novel, specifically, Artificial Intelligence, Design, and Ethics.

The first versions of these adventures were a great jumping off point, but we recognized that many of these ideas could be improved upon.  So we went back to the drawing table to create a completely new idea of how to approach these adventures.  (By the way, that’s exactly how the engineering design process is supposed to work!  Learn from mistakes, make things better.  But, we’re getting ahead of the game.) 

Our biggest questions were about thinking.  How can we design a website that gets middle school students to think deeply and imaginatively about ideas?  How can we make this really engaging and fun?  How can we use all of the resources around us in the Happy Valley?

As developers of this website, we have seen site after site that asks students to click on answers to multiple choice questions.  That’s no way to get anyone thinking imaginatively.  We took a big gamble.  We would ask students to write about ideas in the website.  Even better, we would ask them to get into online conversations with other middle schoolers thinking about the same ideas. 

We reworked the artificial intelligence adventure first. The narrative story framing it provided strength.  We wanted to draw on the main characters from the novel, particularly the relationship between Rio and Sadina.  Then we determined that Rio’s brain needed to go!  What else could grab a students attention more than one of their favorite characters needing a great deal of help to retrieve or replace his brain?!  Middle school students would have to figure out whether or not they could replace Rio’s brain, and how to do it if it was indeed possible.  What better way to enter the world of artificial intelligence?  Using our characters and story, middle school students become actors themselves in the drama of helping Rio regain a functioning brain. 

So that’s it right? We had our reason to learn about AI.

But wait ... learn what about AI?  We knew that we wanted to help students broaden and deepen their understanding of AI and see the connection to engineering.  Deciding precisely what ideas pave the way for future learning and thinking was a significant challenge for our design team.  We thought that the story of artificial intelligence needed to begin with a consideration of real intelligence or, maybe more accurately, biological intelligence.  Building from here, the adventure next considers artificial intelligence and tries to provide a wide and diverse set of examples to spark student thinking about machine or artificial intelligence.  The end of the journey brings us back to the reason we started the journey in the first place—to help Rio.  Can machine intelligence replace human intelligence?  Grappling with this question brings students into contact with Alan Turing, one of the most important thinkers and engineers in the realm of artificial intelligence.  The test Turing devised helps us figure out how we can help Rio.  We think of this as our AI "idea story".

Taking the student on this learning journey that tells this idea story required design after design, edit after edit, (a labor of love no doubt); the adventure began to take shape with contributions from EVERY team member.  Artwork, dialogue, functionality, and, most importantly, educational content based on extensive research filled out the structure we had imagined for the adventure.  And today, our half of the journey (creating a tool for all of you), is coming to a close.  It’s nearly time to share our creation with you so that Rio can finally stop losing his mind!

But the story never truly ends, how can we streamline our process in the future without compromising on creativity? What other frame narratives would engage an audience that relate to design and ethics?  How do we “know” what middle school students are interested in?  And how can we make these adventures engaging and accessible for students of all backgrounds?  

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This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant Nos. 1223868 and 1223460.  Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

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