While there’s debate on the definition of artificial intelligence (AI), it has, nonetheless, penetrated the job landscape, and this is of great interest to educators. Science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education fosters innovation, which fuels the U.S. economy, and questions are growing about the ability for AI to advance STEM education.
Surprisingly, educators are discovering that a focus on knowledge acquisition and the capacity to perform related tasks falls short when preparing people for a lifelong career. Technology advances nonstop, and in an ever-shifting environment, workers need to develop the capacity for lifelong learning, including the ability to think critically and collaborate to identify problems and find solutions.
This said, how can STEM education benefit from AI advancements? This is a multifaceted question, but a good place to start begins with broadening the public’s awareness of what AI can do now. “We have algorithms that are able to solve specific tasks very well, but we're far away from what scientists are calling general artificial intelligence, where you're able to have a single system solve every problem or have human type of thinking and decision-making,” explains Conrad Tucker, professor of mechanical engineering at Carnegie Mellon University.
This point is important when addressing the inevitable concern that AI will take over workers’ jobs. Jobs will not necessarily go away, but they’ll probably change. “One thing we can consider is changing compensation structures. People may no longer perform every single task that they did previously in their jobs. And what does this mean for educators in terms of the skill sets that we're developing in our students who then go into the workforce?” asks Tucker. More investigation, involving people from different fields of study including the social sciences, is needed to help us learn how AI may affect workforce development and how to incorporate AI in an ethical manner that benefits society.
Another consideration is broadening the prevalence of AI in our work day, and this could happen by expanding AI beyond the STEM fields. “We could think of AI in the same way that we think of literacy or English comprehension, where it is a skill set that will be used in multiple sectors beyond traditional STEM fields and even in the arts. It would be very advantageous as a society, if in the same way that Excel and PowerPoint have become synonymous with the professional workforce, that students develop a basic AI competency that cuts across K-12 and higher education. We could really expand the awareness and foundational understanding of AI,” says Tucker.
Segments of our society have different ways of viewing AI, and our incentives and reward structures are not aligned. “How well do policymakers and industry and academic researchers understand the connectivity of different sectors? There definitely could be opportunities for these groups to work together better so they can learn how one sector impacts the other,” says Tucker. “As researchers in this space, we need to be cognizant of the fact that our policies are governed by ‘We the People,’ and as a result, it is imperative that ‘We the People’ are well informed about these technologies and their potential impact on society.”
All these matters affect the prosperity of our nation, and that is why the National Science Foundation (NSF) sponsored a two-day workshop, “Artificial Intelligence and the Future of STEM and Societies” at Carnegie Mellon in December 2019. Experts and nonexperts from academia, industry, and government convened to explore how integrating AI and STEM education could transform the U.S. workforce. The workshop initiated formal discussion on the topic, and now it serves as a model to replicate so that participants stay apprised of current research and policies.
Tucker, who was the workshop’s lead organizer, explains that AI is believed to be accelerating the need for us to change how we teach engineering and other STEM subjects. The workshop brought to light the disconnect between AI and STEM education and the need to remedy this.
“I am encouraged by the response from the federal government in realizing the urgency of investments in this space,” says Tucker. “Over the past few years, there have been executive orders and funding decisions that are laser-focused on ensuring that the U.S. maintain and increase its dominance and expertise in this space because it is the 21st century’s gold.”
This research is funded by the National Science Foundation NSF DUE #1941782.