Depending on who you ask, artificial intelligence (AI) may be abstract and confusing or the stuff of evil robots. But for Tim Needles, it's an essential part a middle- and high school curriculum. Needles is—deep breath now—an educator in Smithtown School District in Smithtown, N.Y., adjunct professor at Adelphi University, author, TEDx Talk speaker and an in-demand lecturer at educational conferences. He's also an early champion of creative projects that lean heavily into STEAM concepts, including AI.
You won't find a whiff of dystopia in his lessons—just fun, accessible ways young learners can apply the technology to express themselves, create something new or even improve the world. It stretches across subjects: In English class, students enter phrases into an AI-powered tool, then dissect the auto-generated poem it creates. In art, they draw a series of short sketches and see how accurately the technology identifies them. In science, they categorize photos to help improve the technology that a national park in Africa uses to identify wildlife and poachers.
These hands-on projects fuel discussions about real-life ways to use AI, Needles says. "We're able to talk about how you could identify all the data on car accidents, for example, and see where the most accidents happen, and why they are happening," he explains. "So maybe those are the intersections that might need to be redesigned."
Needles' goal is to provide students with a conceptual fluency on a technology that, like it or not, is already woven into our everyday lives. "As a teacher, I'm always looking at where we are now and where we were, but then also where we will be five or 10 years down the road," he says. "You can see that AI is something we're using every day. What will it look like in five years? It's going to be totally different."
"You want to make sure [students] understand that AI is a tool, just like a pencil," he adds, "and this is how it works."