Artificial Intelligence (AI) is such a hot topic for educators these days, and one that all educators in all subject or grade levels can approach, but many are on the fence on whether it’s something with which they want to engage. AI is part of students’ everyday lives, and their interest and passion for the technology continues to grow, and educators who are embracing this movement are realizing that it’s a critical part of preparing students for a modern workforce.
I sat down with April DeGennaro, teacher at Peeples Elementary School in Peachtree City, Georgia this month to discuss why as an elementary school teacher, she has chosen to embrace AI for her own learning and that of her students.
April DeGennaro, teacher at Peeples Elementary School
Q: Why did you start AI implementation within your school or classroom?
A: Being involved in CODE.org and many NSF-funded projects in the past, I was asked to join a project focused on computational thinking. During this project, several of the researchers in that group asked me to join another project which was focused on artificial intelligence in schools. I love learning and I believe that it is important for an older teacher like me to stay on top of the new trends so I was eager and interested to begin learning something new.
Q: Why is AI a topic that elementary school educators need to care about?
A: AI is an increasingly present part of our everyday lives and we need to make sure our littlest students grow up with AI, not ignorant of AI. Within minutes of being born, a child has their first interaction with AI—the cell phone taking their picture uses object recognition to focus on that new baby. Once you know this, you begin to think about all the ways you interact with AI technology already, sometimes without even recognizing it.
Elementary schools are heavily focused on integration of technology because that is what the real world is like and most of that technology includes AI features. Examples include spam filters, software that sets student practice levels based on performance, and even autofill on search boxes. Students care about AI because it is relevant to their lives, and so educators need to care about what kids care about. Being ignorant to this technology isn't okay for adults or students.
Q: How do you address teachers who don't feel AI is important?
A: Most teachers are so swamped with the curriculum demands of what they are required to teach based on end-of-grade testing that AI is like all of the other interesting things that could be taught. I think some teachers see me as a rebel. It is a bit rebellious to be focused on something outside of that narrow band of standards-assessed content. I don't think teachers are putting a value judgement on the importance of AI, they are just not interested in putting the time and energy into delving into it if they already meet their standards in other ways.
In reality, I still teach the content standards, I just make connections to or use AI as the topic. I find kids are engaged and excited to learn about AI because it is new and not overtaught. AI is motivating because it is relevant and current. AI is also easily connected to almost every curriculum area.
Q: How would an elementary teacher incorporate AI content into the classroom?
A: There are so many interesting current events about AI nearly every day. These can get students writing and reading and reaching high-level thinking skills through evaluation and critical analysis. Math assignments can tie to the math in AI—it surely gives them examples of how math is used in daily life! For example, with autofill, we learn about probability and with representation we talk about coordinates for space and movement. Recently I selected a read aloud about AI which was an intentional choice and the kids loved it! I am also a big proponent of PBL and passion projects. I ask kids how could AI help solve problems. The ways to use AI and AI examples in curriculum are endless. Kids just love being asked to think.
Q: What's been the biggest benefit of having an AI focus within your classroom?
A: Seeing the insights and enthusiasm kids have for the future and how AI is controllable with computer science skills. I see how excited they are to see growth and change in technology as it improves and provides more AI agents that can do more things. I love to see the light in a child's eyes when the magic in AI is revealed to be something they can control, they can talk about, they can debate, and ultimately, they can change! I love the shared excitement of learning with my kids. As I learn they learn and that is a magical way to experience school as a teacher or a student.
Q: What advice would you give a school or teacher just starting out on their AI journey?
A: Find cool things that interest you and share them with your students. Share your passion. What do you find interesting? I want to teach broad exposure. The main things I stress are: 1) AI is not magic; and 2) AI is not able to take over the world...it is a narrow ability to recognize sound, or objects, or other inputs. It can't interpret, extrapolate, or think like a human, and I don't believe it ever will.
Q: Where did your AI learning and experience originate from?
A: I love to learn and once someone "removed the veil" of how AI was everywhere I was hooked on learning more, finding out different uses, and sharing those with my friends at school. AI is now my new passion in learning and I love to share my passion with my kiddos.
I hope that April’s journey inspires all educators to embrace AI for their own learning, and for their students.