A number of factors made this school year the perfect time to introduce a new project-based elective on artificial intelligence (AI). The Chiang Center for Innovation and Collaboration (CIC) opened, offering a state-of-the-art facility where students can explore topics such as prototyping, design and 3D printing. Blair's computer science department grew to include longtime Director of Technology and chair Sam Adams, as well as Michael Garrant, who brings to his teaching role nearly 30 years' experience in engineering. The School has focused on offering more technology electives and creating more synergy among them in recent years. And Blair students have become increasingly interested in technology-related subjects such as programming, virtual reality, robotics, drones and other electronic systems.
"We have certainly come a long way over the years," said Mr. Adams, who planned the curriculum for the School's AI elective, which gives students the opportunity to work with software such as voice-activated controls, facial and voice recognition, and text-to-voice and voice-to-text translation. "We have grown from offering only one programming class in the basement of the library to boasting an array of tech electives showcased in a beautiful space for the whole community to see. It has been exciting and rewarding to see the program grow and develop, and AI represents the type of creative class that wouldn't have found a place at Blair years ago."
Four students enrolled in the course during its first semester, and they have spent September and October learning to code, researching topics related to AI and presenting their findings to classmates. By December, Mr. Adams hopes his students will learn to program chatbots, a computer that can converse with a human being, ultimately putting that software into a robot being built by Mr. Garrant's robotics class.
Noting that the first class is small, in part because it is a new elective, Mr. Adams anticipates that AI will be a cumulative course, where each class contributes in some small way to a yet-to-be-determined larger project. To date, the class has studied the Python and Java programming languages and explored concepts related to AI, all with the goal of prototyping a relatively simple robot in which AI can live so that students can understand how software controls robotics systems.
As one of the first courses to take place in the CIC's technology classroom, AI students are enjoying the facility's light, airy and flexible interior aesthetic. "Everything in the technology classroom is high tech," said Jason Pan '18. "It's incredible to experience all these high-end technologies as a high school student. I want to study AI in college, and I'm excited to learn how to design, build and program an AI prototype this year using all of the CIC's resources."
Student enthusiasm for the course's study of such a timely topic—and one likely to greatly influence how homes, cars and industry operate over the next decade—is evident in every project they tackle. Jade Torres '18 plans to major in cyber operations at the U.S. Naval Academy, and hopes that studying AI will will give her a strong background in programming. Her favorite project so far has involved working with chatbots. "We've come up with our own criteria and tested it on existing chatbots," she said. "It is interesting to see how natural or unnatural the different conversations can be." Looking forward, she is excited about working more with Python and eventually creating her own code to put into a robot.
Jason has been most impressed to learn how programming tools have made the leap from being passive to generative. "Before AI, a machine did exactly what it was programmed to do," he explained. "Today, an AI machine can solve a problem with the goals and constraints we communicate to it. In the future, I believe that AI machines will become more intuitive. They will be able to learn and generate ideas and creations with human assistance. I find this fascinating."
Like Jade, Jason has enjoyed comparing different chatbots and understanding the basic criteria AI needs to achieve humans' communication abilities. As the semester progresses, he eagerly anticipates downloading and piloting existing AI sample code and attempting to modify it.
A couple of months into the school year, then, it seems that Blair's new AI course is accomplishing Mr. Adams' first-semester goal: He has created a class that generates interest and enthusiasm among students about technology. "Taking technology classes at Blair is not a requirement," he explained. "When we offer courses that focus on timely and relevant subjects, our students become passionate about the field and eager to take other courses offered by our department. As time goes on, I expect our AI projects to live in the CIC and, hopefully, they will inspire students to enroll in tech electives and contribute to the work we are doing, one semester at a time."