Technology is evolving at a rapid pace in the 21st century, transforming the jobs market and leading the education sector to rethink the way it prepares students for the future. Undeniably, one of the key catalysts driving change here is Artificial Intelligence (AI). The development of AI, robotics, and machine learning has given rise to new career opportunities, as well as skills requirements, for the next generation.
AI development is at the top of the agenda for countries across the globe, with its potential to unlock solutions to key socio-economic challenges and drive growth. Indeed, the multi-billion pound AI Sector deal announced last year outlined the UK Government’s commitment to AI research and development to solve complex cross-sector issues and boost productivity. Yet, what does this mean for schools educating the workforce of tomorrow?
While we are racing ahead in the development of digital tools, equipping current and future workers with fundamental skills in robotics and coding is still lagging behind. A recent global McKinsey survey on young people and employers found that 40 per cent of employers cited a lack of skills as the main reason for entry level job vacancies. Furthermore, 60 per cent agreed that new graduates were not sufficiently prepared for the world of work. STEM education must be able to adapt to these rapid advances and prepare students in a manner that encourages them to embrace these technologies.
Integrating AI in education
If we hope to progress as a society and harness technology to resolve key issues, it is essential that we embrace future-ready learning in our schools to give students the best possible grounding in desirable STEM, and specifically, AI skills. This has been rising up the national agenda for education in recent years, notably with the introduction of the BBC micro:bit in 2016 which saw pocket-sized codable devices distributed to schools across the country for free. Still, more can be done to integrate newer disruptive technologies into everyday learning for pupils.
One of the common misconceptions around block coding and engineering is that it is a strictly academic discipline, reserved only for students of certain grade levels. In reality, AI learning is highly creative and demands a range of skills including critical thinking, problem-solving and independent learning. There are a range of affordable AI-based resources kits aimed at schools which take advantage of user-friendly platforms, giving students the opportunity to engage whatever their ability level and interest.
Making AI skills development a part of the curriculum as early as possible and looking at interactive resources which help students, and teachers, to break down complex concepts will help these technologies become more accessible. In doing so, we can prepare students with fundamental knowledge in these technical areas while giving them the broad skill set which is essential for later life.
Hands-on experience with AI
To help students get to grips with AI and overcome any misconceptions around robotics, first-hand experience in the classroom is the best place to start. While pupils use technology in everyday life, there is often little understanding of how these devices come into being and the processes that underscore their output. Consequently, resources which allow students to learn through play and create their own AI-powered devices can help to deepen their understanding and appreciation of coding technologies. Especially if they are projects which resonate with students’ interests.
For example, in the digital age where most students have smartphones with cutting-edge cameras, why not spark their interest with AI-powered vision sensors in the classroom? Incorporating vision sensors enables students to navigate complex robotics concepts in real-life contexts; students can experiment with facial recognition, object tracking and colour recognition through simply pointing and clicking.
For students of all ages, learning through play makes an exciting introduction to what can initially seem to be a complex concept. They can have fun testing the vision sensor with their peers while discovering key machine learning features such as continuous learning, which makes it possible for the device to remember new objects, faces and colours. These devices are ultimately building blocks for further projects so that students can extend their learning; for instance, teachers might encourage older students to build the sensor into a normal camera to give it intelligent capabilities. If we can make AI-based activities a part of everyday learning early on in a child’s education, it will help in fostering not only skills, but a genuine enthusiasm, for the technology. This will stand students in good stead for the future.
AI-based project learning
As any engineer or scientist will confirm, curiosity is a key ingredient of technological development. Research, invention and testing are the only way to make advances and develop the solutions to our current global challenges, which is why encouraging AI project-style learning in schools is especially useful. Whether it is working with an AI-enabled camera or developing an automated robotic car, giving students ownership of their own project encourages them to think critically and deepen their understanding of tricky concepts. Project learning further enables teachers to tailor the activity for each student according to ability.
Older students might also wish to experiment with AI in more advanced projects, such as testing the AI vision sensor in their media studies class, to discover how the technology intersects with other disciplines. Bridging the gap between core technical concepts and their applications in the wider world is often an obstacle to STEM engagement in schools. Through enabling students to experience the versatility of AI and incorporate it into their own projects across the curriculum, they can see for themselves how AI informs processes and solutions in a wider context.
As such, it is important that schools select AI resources which are compatible with other robotics and micro:bit accessories so that students can combine their AI devices with new platforms and creative projects. This further enables budget-stretched teachers to maximise resources.
With students having to prepare for a tech-centric workforce in flux, it is imperative that schools equip learners with the core AI skills that will enable them to succeed in the future. Practical and hands-on learning will play a key role in AI, block coding and engineering engagement, supporting learners to build up knowledge and soft skills in a range of areas. Integrating AI-based resource kits in primary and secondary schools will help to break down misconceptions and encourage students to develop an enthusiasm for the technologies powering our future.