Children are curious by nature. They have the innate ability to point toward new objects and ask the most interesting of questions. They befriend inanimate things just as easily as they imitate adults. As a result, teaching children about game-changing tools and technologies — making an effort to introduce AI, or artificial intelligence — at an age where their curiosities are at their peak seems prudent.
The global artificial intelligence market size is predicted to grow to $309.6 billion by 2026. As AI tools permeate our daily lives and children start interacting with AI-powered smart deliveries, the smartest thing for us to do is to make AI part of early education.
However, teaching them complex concepts like AI right away is no child’s play. Nevertheless, educators can introduce AI as early as kindergarten, and educators can take steps to cultivate the interest throughout school and beyond.
Introduce AI into early childhood
We know for a fact that most children are already interacting with AI at their homes. They could be playing with their AI-embedded toys or interacting with AI assistants such as Siri and Alexa. The number of such voice devices enabling smart homes is expected to reach 275 million by 2023. At schools, too, children might also be engaging with AI-powered learning tools.
However, when it comes to AI education, not all children have the same access at the preliminary education level. In America, children typically have been first introduced to STEM courses in high school. Yett, only 47% of high schools teach computer science courses. In rural areas, this number is 43%. AI exposure also varies based on geographic location, but that can be offset with interventions through formal AI education in underserved communities.
We can reach students sooner by having educators at school and parents at home help inculcate early interest through sci-fi stories and interactive AI-powered learning applications or AI-based, interactive, age-appropriate games. Moreover, interacting with virtual reality or video game characters, or witnessing adults schedule meetings through voice commands, are the most natural of opportunities to introduce kids to the world of AI.
Bring AI into elementary schools
School curriculums should emphasize quantitative skills and introduce AI-powered machines for education right from the very beginning. Doing this helps set the stage for children to better observe, comprehend and navigate the AI tools they encounter. They have opportunities to ask questions and develop a keen understanding of the impact technology continues to have in our lives in and outside of our homes.
As students ascend to higher grades, their interest can be further nurtured through data-related projects, mathematics assignments, essays and documentaries, coupled with curriculum focused on programming, data and computer science as well as mathematics.
AI immersion hinges on qualified teachers
The ability to build a generation equipped to make the most of AI depends on who is teaching students about AI and whether they are knowledgeable on the subject matter. The recently published Center for Security and Emerging Technology report points to an acute shortage of AI faculty in our education institutions. Educators are, in fact, leaving academia to pursue higher-paying industry jobs.
It is a given that without proper knowledge and skills, teachers cannot explain concepts with clarity. Additionally, AI education at early K-12 stages requires even more creativity to drive a point home. This is where teacher training programs can come in handy.
AI information for educators can span a variety of training and AI immersion programs. Educators can propel their careers with adult learning programs such as MIT’s RAISE initiative and avenues such as interdepartmental meetings that facilitate knowledge-sharing as educators embrace AI for better teaching experiences. Conferences and seminars also help teachers network and keep updated with industry peers and share their own takeaways.
Ask teachers to use AI
It is equally important to have teachers make the most use of AI-enabled tools in the education setting. For example, introduce AI via learning management systems or voice assistants that can help with daily classroom activities such as assigning tasks to students and taking attendance.
Equally compelling is the prospect of teachers acquiring abilities to analyze student performance from classroom data. This allows teachers to focus on students’ weaknesses and curate more personalized learning experiences. AI teacher upskilling, therefore, unlocks great benefits for both educators and students.
Nurture partnerships that enable early learning
The mission to disseminate AI education across communities is also contingent upon the buy-in from stakeholders that extend beyond the realm of traditional education institutions.
Governments have a big role in ensuring easy access to early STEM and AI education. Without the government’s actions in developing AI-friendly policies that commit industry and education institutions to interact and foster an AI incubating ecosystem, the efforts — and, subsequently, the results — dwindle.
The impetus for nurturing early AI education is equally on businesses too. They can participate in the journey through in-class workshops, talks, internships and career fairs. Businesses can also provide students with an awareness of a wide variety of careers possible in various industries that go beyond standard technical roles.
Educational institutions also have an important responsibility to strategize as the industry increasingly integrates AI. They must tailor their pedagogies to offer the most pertinent skills and advance strategic partnerships with companies to provide students with valuable practical experiences spanning different stages of their education journeys.
AI journey must start now
Innovations in AI that are led by the budding generation will only be possible if we successfully foster a child’s curiosity into a passion for the technology.
In this important journey, it’s critical to have all of the stakeholders — in and outside a child’s home and school — to enable the future pool of AI leaders to experience AI’s possibilities in the real world. Equally important is to build a reliable set of educators who can impart knowledge in this evolving field. Lastly, we need to improve STEM education in kindergarten so that students grow up loving STEM topics that serve as the foundation for various innovations that get built with AI.
Sameer Maskey, Ph.D., is an adjunct professor of AI in Public Policy and Programming for Social Impact at Columbia University and the founder and CEO of Fusemachines, an enterprise AI talent solutions provider. Maskey’s 18 years of experience in STEM areas include work at the IBM Watson Research Center.