We’re in the first act of the AI revolution. Artificial intelligence is changing every aspect of our lives. And this is only the beginning: 65% of children entering primary school will someday hold jobs that currently don’t exist. Yet, most students don’t receive any education around AI systems. Ora D. Tanner is on a mission to change this. As the Co-Founder and Chief Learning Officer of The AI Education Project, Tanner is designing a tech-enabled AI curriculum for underserved high schoolers that sets them up for success in our increasingly automated world.
Shannon Farley: AI is here, and it is changing the nature of work and life. Why is it critical that students – even those who don’t plan on becoming computer scientists – understand what AI is?
Ora D. Tanner: There’s no denying it: AI will impact all aspects of every student’s life. College, career, healthcare, homeownership, access to reliable voting information – everything will be impacted by AI. To gain the tools they need to navigate an increasingly automated future, students need culturally relevant education around AI systems and how they work. The AI Education Project is the first to not only bring this kind of AI learning to students, but to center our learning materials around youth culture and the experiences of students from marginalized communities.
Farley: How is The AI Education Project filling the gap to provide the educational resources young people need to prepare for the future of work?
Tanner: The AI Education Project equips high school students, especially those from low-income communities most impacted by automation, with the knowledge and skills they need to participate in the future of work. We accomplish this through an interactive digital curriculum designed with Gen Z in mind. Think: more TikTok than Scholastic. Through project and game-based learning, our curriculum jump-starts students on their journey to understanding ubiquitous – and often invisible – AI systems at work in their everyday lives. This knowledge positions our students to make better decisions about their future.
Farley: Unlike AI education programs that currently exist, your curriculum doesn’t focus on computer science. Why this approach?
Tanner: Other AI curricula are technical. Full stop. They teach students how to code, with the intent of guiding them into AI-related jobs. This is great – and necessary – but we believe it’s essential that first, students learn what AI is and how it operates. Here’s an analogy I like to use: teaching students about AI through coding – without first ensuring they have a conceptual understanding of it – is like giving a teenager a driver’s license without making sure they passed the traffic and road sign test. They might be able to drive, but would likely come into harm’s way. Our curriculum teaches students the rules of the road before they get started on their journey with AI.
Farley: The students you serve are mostly high schoolers from marginalized communities. What compelled you to focus on this group?
Tanner: As an 8th grade science teacher at a Title I middle school, I quickly realized many of my students didn’t have a basic understanding of science or technology. This wasn’t because they were incapable of learning about these topics. Far from it. Rather, it was because they hadn’t been given the opportunity to access this content. I took it upon myself to expose my students to as many STEM learning experiences as I could. Encouraging these “hidden Einsteins” has become somewhat of a personal crusade – and one that has led me to doing this work with The AI Education Project.
Farley: In addition to being a science educator, you have a deep background in learning and design research. How does this experience shape your work with The AI Education Project?
Tanner: My research validated what I saw first-hand in the classroom: that much of the curriculum designed for our schools fails to consider the perspectives of the students who ultimately use it. Everything comes down to good design. Fast forward to today, where I’m leveraging my research experience to design The AI Education Project’s curriculum. Our mission is to empower students – not shut them out – through evidence-based approaches like culturally relevant materials and project-based learning.
Farley: Let’s talk project-based and game-based learning. Why have you chosen to center The AI Education Project’s curriculum around these approaches?
Tanner: We pair project-based learning, which studies have shown is one of the most effective ways to support STEM learning, with game-based learning, because…games! Besides being fun, game-based learning works because it promotes student engagement, encourages students to persist with difficult content like AI, and allows them to “learn by doing” in a real-world context. Building project and game-based learning into our curriculum is a one-two punch: together, these powerful approaches help our students develop confidence to learn about complex AI systems.
Farley: COVID-19 has made online learning the “new normal.” How has this impacted your work?
Tanner: COVID-19 has presented unexpected opportunities for The AI Education Project. Our original curriculum was designed for in-person classrooms, but when the pandemic hit, we quickly pivoted to a digital curriculum. And there’s been a huge demand for our content. We’ve reached a larger audience of teachers and students through this digital platform. With online learning becoming the norm, there is no better time to advocate for AI literacy than right now.
Farley: This is your first time being a social entrepreneur. What has been the biggest challenge you’ve faced so far as a founder?
Tanner: The biggest challenge has been the balancing act of being accountable to multiple stakeholders as we build The AI Education Project. We have to keep teachers in the loop on where we are in development; we must inform funders where we are in our growth strategy; I have to keep my co-founders up to speed about where I am with weekly milestones. And – maybe hardest of all – I have to communicate to myself that “I can do this!” Juggling the expectations of so many people has been a major adjustment, especially because I’m naturally an introvert. I’m learning to move out of my comfort zone and do what’s needed to propel my organization’s mission forward.
Farley: What’s the best piece of advice you’d pass on to other women entrepreneurs?
Tanner: Own your idea and dominate. It is absolutely okay to be unapologetic about how gifted, talented, and skilled you are. Don’t downplay your awesomeness. Use your brilliance to solve problems that only you can solve, in a way that only you can do it. The world needs whatever your idea is. Validate yourself. You don’t have to wait on anyone else to do it for you. Carry yourself with power.
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