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Inside the Classroom

The future is here: Montour middle schoolers to start AI curriculum this fall

Jamie Martines
| Wednesday, July 25, 2018, 8:33 a.m.
Brendan White, an 8th-grader at North Allegheny Middle School, holds a block while Cozmo, a robot powered by artificial intelligence, reacts during a ReadyAI artificial intelligence and robotics competition held at the Wyndham Pittsburgh University Center in Oakland on July 24, 2018.
Jamie Martines | Tribune-Review
Brendan White, an 8th-grader at North Allegheny Middle School, holds a block while Cozmo, a robot powered by artificial intelligence, reacts during a ReadyAI artificial intelligence and robotics competition held at the Wyndham Pittsburgh University Center in Oakland on July 24, 2018.
Sam Chung, an 8th-grader at Sacred Heart Middle School and Brendan White, an 8th-grader at North Allegheny Middle School, work together to program the robot Cozmo during a ReadyAI artificial intelligence and robotics competition held at the Wyndham Pittsburgh University Center in Oakland on July 24, 2018.
Jamie Martines | Tribune-Review
Sam Chung, an 8th-grader at Sacred Heart Middle School and Brendan White, an 8th-grader at North Allegheny Middle School, work together to program the robot Cozmo during a ReadyAI artificial intelligence and robotics competition held at the Wyndham Pittsburgh University Center in Oakland on July 24, 2018.
Students experiment with coding during a ReadyAI artificial intelligence and robotics competition held at the Wyndham Pittsburgh University Center in Oakland on July 24, 2018.
Jamie Martines | Tribune-Review
Students experiment with coding during a ReadyAI artificial intelligence and robotics competition held at the Wyndham Pittsburgh University Center in Oakland on July 24, 2018.
Justin Aglio, director of academic achievement and district innovation at Montour School District, talks to Qadir Khan, an 8th-grader at the Upper St. Clair School District and Ethan Chen, a 5th-grader at the Fox Chapel School District, during a ReadyAI artificial intelligence and robotics competition held at the Wyndham Pittsburgh University Center in Oakland on July 24, 2018.
Jamie Martines | Tribune-Review
Justin Aglio, director of academic achievement and district innovation at Montour School District, talks to Qadir Khan, an 8th-grader at the Upper St. Clair School District and Ethan Chen, a 5th-grader at the Fox Chapel School District, during a ReadyAI artificial intelligence and robotics competition held at the Wyndham Pittsburgh University Center in Oakland on July 24, 2018.

By 2025, robots equipped with artificial intelligence could be delivering pizzas to our homes, reading our X-rays at the doctor’s office and taking care of household chores, according to some experts.

That’s also the year rising sixth graders will be graduating from high school.

“If our kids aren’t experienced with that or aren’t exposed to those things, they’re going to be behind the curve,” said Justin Aglio, director of academic achievement and district innovation at Montour School District, where middle schoolers will be digging into what Aglio said is the first K-12 artificial intelligence curriculum in the country this fall.

The artificial intelligence curriculum is about more than just teaching students to code or build a robot, Aglio said. The district hopes to use the curriculum to teach students skills like data literacy and to expose them to careers in robotics and automation. Students will examine systems like Apple’s Siri or Amazon’s Alexa and learn to question the ethics of artificial intelligence—all before they reach their teenage years.

“It’s the people that program artificial intelligence and technology that will change the future,” Aglio said, and Montour is making sure its middle schoolers are ready to step into that role—and those jobs—upon graduation.

The district serves nearly 2,900 students in grades kindergarten through grade 12. About a third are considered economically disadvantaged, according to Pennsylvania Department of Education data.

The district’s David E. Williams Middle School, where the artificial intelligence program will be deployed, serves about 850 students in grades five through eight and is located just over 11 miles, a 20 minute drive, from Pittsburgh’s “Robotics Row” in the city’s Strip District. That’s where at least 20 tech companies working to advance fields such as robotics, autonomous manufacturing and self-driving cars have set up shop.

Every student will participate in the artificial intelligence curriculum, not just those enrolled in a special class or gifted program, Aglio said. The introduction of the new curriculum will accompany the renovation of a 3,000 square-foot room at the middle school that will serve as a hub for the artificial intelligence program. It will include a robotics competition stage, televisions with video conferencing capability and an 86-inch interactive television screen to be used for data literacy projects.

Montour has partnered with robotics and artificial intelligence research powerhouse Carnegie Mellon University, also located in Pittsburgh, to get the curriculum off the ground. Carnegie Mellon became the first university in the nation to offer an undergraduate degree in artificial intelligence in May.

Dave Touretzky is a professor in the computer science department at Carnegie Mellon specializing in cognitive robotics and computer science education. He developed the software at the center of Montour’s artificial intelligence curriculum, called Calypso , which is designed to interface with a palm-sized robot called Cozmo , released in 2016 by the San Francisco-based company Anki.

Touretzky will also be helping to train Montour teachers in using and teaching Calypso.

Unlike many other robots used to teach coding in classrooms across the country, Cozmo can see, Touretzky said. Even before students start experimenting with writing their own code, the robot is capable of interacting with the user and its surroundings. It’s a toy powered by artificial intelligence.

Using Calypso, a picture-based programming language inspired by Microsoft’s Kodu, students can click on a picture and piece together a cause-and-effect statement that will tell Cozmo what to do: When you see a cube, move toward it. When you bump into a cube, grab it.

“You have to give them the right kind of programming language,” Touretzky said of writing a coding language that introduces young people to the basics of logic without getting bogged down in technical details.

Students aren’t the only ones gearing up for a new learning experience. Teachers also need to approach the school’s artificial intelligence curriculum with a willingness to give it a try, said Bill Black, a middle school science, technology engineering and math teacher at Montour who will be helping to train other teachers this fall.

“You’re going to fail at some point,” Black said, offering advice to his colleagues and those in other school districts who might also be thinking about how to get an artificial intelligence program into classrooms. “Just keep going.”

The district has not yet determined how many kits, which consist of a Cozmo robot, software, a tablet, game controller and workbooks, it will acquire, Aglio of Montour said. They’re working to explore grant and funding options to pay for the kits, which run about $370 through the company WholeRen.

WholeRen runs ReadyAI, a robotics and artificial intelligence competition for K-12 students. The kits can be used by two to five students at a time, according to Andrew Chen, chief development officer at WholeRen.

Montour will host a regional ReadyAI competition next school year.

Jamie Martines is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 724-850-2867, jmartines@tribweb.com or via Twitter @Jamie_Martines.

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