Ms. Burkhauser at the White House

by Laila Andelman and Evelyn Goldin for Silver Chips

In some Blair classes, teachers are open about their disdain for artificial intelligence (AI), while in others it goes without saying that using machine learning like ChatGPT is forbidden. However, there is one class that does not shy away from AI, and in fact embraces it. In Room 328, students are hard at work coding programs and exploring the intricacies of AI. Nora Burkhauser, who stands at the front of the class, teaches Introduction to AI at Blair, which discusses the ever-changing technology with human-like capabilities. 

Photo by Anagha Bhuvanagiri for Silver Chips

The class covers coding with Python, machine learning and algorithms, and using datasets in order to train models. Burkhauser began teaching the class in 2021, and given AI’s constant evolution, the class adapts new concepts and implements them into its curriculum. With the introduction of ChatGPT, the class has had a larger emphasis on language models. Though the course does not entail building an original AI model, students investigate models and explore their complexities. 

Given AI’s widespread usage, Burkhauser believes the Introduction to AI class is helpful for all students, regardless of their interest in STEM. “[AI] is used for everything. So regardless of what your major is going to be, even like English majors or history majors … everybody [will use it] in one way or another,” Burkhauser says. 

Burkhauser received an invitation to participate in a White House event on Dec. 5 called “Teaching Inclusive AI in Computer Science.” The program took place during the Computer Science Teacher Association’s (CSTA) Computer Science Education Week, which intends to spotlight the growing field. “CSTA and the National Science Foundation put this group of people together to bring a spotlight or put a spotlight on AI education … [Policy advisors and government officers] were summarizing what their particular organization was doing in regards to AI,” Burkhauser says. 

The program included panel discussions, keynote presentations, and speakers ranging from policy advisors to Amazon and Google executives. Burkhauser spoke on a panel titled “Voices From the Field: Educator Perspectives,” which consisted of four computer science teachers and a digital integration specialist. 

Burkhauser was invited to participate because of her work on the frontier of AI education and her active involvement in CSTA. “We have CSTA Maryland, and I’m one of the leaders for that … so at the national level, they had a conversation about who are the teachers that are doing stuff with AI and inclusivity, and so forth. My name came up,” Burkhauser says. 

In addition to the conference, Burkhauser had the opportunity to lobby congress members about AI in education, and encouraged them to more heavily consider education when creating budgets.

Along with MCPS teachers Steffany Gonzalez Lizama and Heather Minneman, Burkhauser is creating a brand new AI class. The BOE has approved the course for a pilot, and some teachers have volunteered to pilot the lessons. The new course aims to be more accessible than the one she currently teaches. “The course that I’m teaching [at Blar] is specialized and expects a higher level of math and a lot of prior computer science experience. This [course] will be more generalized so that all students will have it available to them, so that's pretty exciting,” Burkhauser says. 

As AI becomes more prominent in academic settings, some have raised concerns about its potential ramifications. Derek Willis, a lecturer in Data Journalism at the University of Maryland, notes that a problem with the growing use of AI among students is that they are too reliant on it and do not question the answers it gives them. “The problems that I see are problems of students being too credulous [and] too willing to accept the output of the generator of AI, and just sort of say[ing], ‘This is what it told me to do,’” Willis says. 

Beyond academia, another problem that arises from AI is the increase of disinformation online, which can include deepfakes, which are essentially forgeries created using machine learning. According to a 2023 Pew Research study, only 42 percent of Americans were able to correctly identify what a deepfake was, while 50 percent said they were unsure. 

However, classes like Burkhauser’s can help to combat the ignorance surrounding AI by demystifying concepts. This is increasingly important as AI becomes more ingrained into society. The AI market is expected to reach $407 billion in 2027, a 368 percent increase from 2022. “[AI] is something that students need to learn because it is impacting their lives. It’s shaping the way they think and the relationships that they make,” Burkhauser says. 

Blair senior Alma Zhong, who took Burkhauser’s AI course, says that gaining an understanding of the developing technology is critical. “I do think that the biggest goal that we have with artificial intelligence is to increase its [accuracy]. And so with that, we actually do need to strengthen our own knowledge and we need to innovate ourselves,” she says. 

Burkhauser believes that it is imperative to educate students about AI given its influence. “What’s happened in the past year is eye opening, in that AI is changing the world … We have to be aware of it, so the more we know about it, the better.”

Published in Silver Chips January 2024, page D4 (issuu)