Inaugural Day of AI brings new digital literacy to classrooms worldwide


Photo courtesy of MIT RAISE

Photo courtesy of MIT RAISE

By Katherine Ouellette | MIT Open Learning 

The first annual Day of AI on Friday, May 13 introduced artificial intelligence literacy to classrooms all over the world. An initiative of MIT Responsible AI for Social Empowerment and Education (RAISE), Day of AI is an opportunity for teachers to introduce K-12 students of all backgrounds to artificial intelligence (AI) and its role in their lives.

With over 3,000 registrations from educators across 88 countries — far exceeding the first-year goal of 1,000 registrations in the United States — the initiative has clearly struck a chord with students and teachers who want to better understand the technology that’s increasingly part of everyday life.

In today’s technology-driven world, kids are exposed to and interact with AI in ways they might not realize — from search algorithms to smart devices, video recommendations to facial recognition. Day of AI aims to help educators and students develop AI literacy with an easy entry point, with free curricula and hands-on activities developed by MIT RAISE for grades 3-12.

Professor Cynthia Breazeal, director of MIT RAISE, dean for digital learning, and head of the MIT Media Lab’s Personal Robots research group, says “We’re so inspired by the enthusiasm that students have expressed about learning about AI. We created this program because we want students and their teachers to be able to learn about these technologies in a way that’s engaging, that’s meaningful, that gives them the experience so they know that they can do AI too.”

AI is for everyone

The MIT RAISE team designed all Day of AI activities to be accessible to educators and students of all backgrounds and abilities, including those with little or no technology experience. In collaboration with education provider i2 Learning, MIT RAISE also offered teachers free professional development sessions prior to teaching the material. “That really helped me understand GANs and how that works,” says Gar-Hay Kit, a sixth-grade teacher from Mary Lyon School in Boston. “The slides that we were given were easy to work with and my class was engaged with all of the activities that we did that day.”

Students engaged with AI topics such as deepfakes, generative adversarial networks (GANs), algorithmic bias in datasets, and responsible design in social media platforms. Through hands-on activities and accessible, age-appropriate lessons, they learned what these technologies do, how they’re built, the potential dangers, along with responsible design and use — to bring benefit while mitigating unintended negative consequences.

To celebrate the inaugural Day of AI, the RAISE team hosted an event at WBUR CitySpace. Students from the fifth and sixth grade at Mary Lyon School shared projects they had created using the Day of AI curriculum during the previous few days. They demonstrated how Google QuickDraw was more likely to recognize spotted cows when the majority of users submit input with drawings of cows with spots; the AI didn’t have a wide enough dataset to draw from to be able to account for other breeds of cows that have different patterns or solid colors.

In a project about responsible social media and game design, students showed how the Roblox game platform only recommends gendered clothing for characters based on the user-entered gender. The solution the students proposed was to change the design of the recommendation system by inputting more options that were less overtly gendered, and allowing all users access to all of the clothing.

When asked what stuck out the most about the Day of AI activities, sixth-grade student Julia said, "It was cool how they were teaching young students AI and how we got to watch videos, and draw on the website."

“One of the great benefits of this program is that no experience is necessary. You can be from anywhere and still have access to this career,” said Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito at the event. The accessibility of Day of AI curricula relates to the tenet of Massachusetts STEM Week, “See yourself in STEM,” and Massachusetts’ STEM education goals at large. When Polito asked the audience of fifth- and sixth-graders from Mary Lyon School if they saw themselves in STEM, dozens of hands shot up in the air.


Photo courtesy of MIT RAISE

Breazeal echoed that sentiment, saying, “No matter your background, we want you to feel empowered and see a place where you can be inventing and driving these technologies in responsible ways to make a better world.” Working professionals and graduate students who use AI aren’t the only ones affected by this technology. RAISE pursues research, innovation, and outreach programs like Day of AI so K-12 students of all ages can recognize AI, evaluate its influence, and learn how to use it responsibly. Addressing the students, Breazeal said, “As you grow up, you’ll have a voice in our democracy to say how you want to see AI used.” 

More than just robots … but sometimes robots 

Breazeal also moderated a panel of professionals who work with AI every day: Daniella DiPaola, PhD student at the MIT Media Lab; Steve Idowu, senior manager of strategic innovation at Liberty Mutual; Alex Aronov, executive director of data strategy and solutions at Vertex; and Sara Saperstein, head of data science, cybersecurity, and fraud at MassMutual. The panelists discussed how they’re able to leverage AI in a variety of different ways at their jobs.

Aronov explained that in a broad sense, AI can help automate “mundane” tasks so employees can focus on projects that require creative, innately “human” thinking. Idowu uses AI to improve customer and employee experiences, from claims to risk assessments. DiPaola addressed the common misconception that AI refers to sentient robots: when the Media Lab developed the social robot Jibo, the AI in action is not the robot itself but natural language understanding, technology that helps Jibo understand what people say and mean. Throughout her academic career, DiPaola has been interested in how people interact with technology. “AI is helping us uncover things about ourselves,” she said.

The panelists also spoke to the broader goals of Day of AI — not only to introduce a younger generation to the STEM concepts at the core of AI technology, but to help them envision a future for themselves that uses those skills in new ways. "It's not just the math and computer science, it's about thinking deeply about what we're doing — and how," said Saperstein.

Jeffrey Leiden, executive chair of Vertex Pharmaceuticals (a founding sponsor of Day of AI as well as the CitySpace event), said, “Twenty years ago, I don't think any of us could have predicted how much AI and machine learning would be in our lives. We have Siri on our phones, AI can tell us what’s in our fridges, it can change the temperature automatically on our thermostats,” he said. As someone working in the medical industry, he’s particularly excited for how AI can detect medical events before they happen so patients can be treated proactively.

By introducing STEM subjects as early as elementary and middle school, educators can build pathways for students to pursue STEM in high school and beyond. Exposure to future careers as scientists and researchers working in fields ranging from life sciences to robotics can empower students to bring their ideas forward and come up with even better solutions for science’s great questions.

The first Day of AI was hugely successful, with teachers posting photos and stories of their students’ enthusiasm from all over the world on social media using #DayofAI. Further Day of AI events are planned in Australia and Hong Kong later this summer, and the MIT RAISE team is already planning new curriculum modules, resources, and community-building efforts in advance of next year’s event. Plans include engaging the growing global community for language translation, more cultural localization for curriculum modules, and more.

Related Content