Lancaster County schools see ‘fascinating opportunities’ for AI

March 12, 2024 Lancaster Online By Gayle Johnson


Carlos Cruz tries to make Mendelian genetics research fun for students at McCaskey East. So, Cruz recently sent them on an imaginary trip to an ethereal world to study mythical winged creatures.

The instructor, who teaches International Baccalaureate biology, could have spent hours creating this 165-word, five-part question with answers and an accompanying data table. The task took seconds, though, because Cruz typed a generic query into ChatGPT, a digital artificial intelligence platform.

Cruz also listened to student suggestions as he entered information displayed on a large classroom screen. He then asked the program to come up with an original problem that followed IB question formats.

The software created the world of Zephoria, populated by extraordinary creatures whose wings contain either swirling patterns or stripes. This extra-credit quiz question sent students scribbling with chalk on their tables as they spent most of the 54-minute class period working together to solve this and other questions.

AI, which marries research and text predictions, has been around since the 1950s. ChatGPT, a digital platform released in November 2022, makes it readily accessible, spurring popularity in education and other fields.

“ChatGPT helps create original questions,” Cruz explains. Students can search online and usually find questions and answers already used in previous IB biology exams, he says. “Using artificial intelligence leads to brand new material.”

Boom or bust?

“There has been a general reaction to AI that’s been twofold,” says Dave Parry, a School District of Lancaster board member who also teaches classes on the subject as a professor in the digital media department at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia.

“A: Students are going to use it to cheat, and B: ChatGPT is the technology that will change education,” Parry says. The truth, he explains, lies somewhere in the middle. “It’s not going to revolutionize education, but there will be changes, both good and bad.”

Forty-six percent of U.S. high school students in grades 10-12 use artificial intelligence, according to a June study from ACT, the nonprofit group that offers college readiness exams. The organization, which surveyed 4,006 pupils, reported that among the 54% of students who don’t use AI, 83% weren’t interested, 64% had no trust in the platform, while 55% said they didn’t know enough about AI to use it.

AI excels in pulling together formulaic information. It predicts text the same way smartphones or Microsoft Word try to predict words in a sentence. Parry calls it math for text. For instance, if you type this word first, and then another word second, what would the next word most likely be?

“It’s a computer-generated helper to be able to articulate expression,” explains Ken Zimmerman, associate program director for educational technology and innovation for Lancaster-Lebanon Intermediate Unit 13, an educational service agency serving schools in both counties.

Teachers can use AI to write emails to colleagues and parents, to create lesson plans and to align state education standards to their curriculums. They also can use it to check for bias or to check a student’s research paper for grammar, spelling and punctuation, leaving the teacher more time to focus on word choice, theme, tone and other writing aspects.

Students may use AI to apply for grants or scholarships or to create resumes. Pupils also may use AI to plagiarize work, but that’s something most teachers should be able to recognize when reading a paper or answers to a question because the language may be repetitive, Parry and other professionals say.

Instead, Parry urges people to think of AI as a co-pilot.

“It’s not driving the car,” he explains. “It’s sitting next to you, giving advice.”

Becoming mainstream

About 50 attended an in-person AI training session at IU13 in June, followed by a digital workshop in November.

AI “is going to have a large impact on learning, and we’re always looking to start conversations,” says Tim Leister, an IU13 instructional technology specialist who helped design the workshop.

The popularity of ChatGPT and other platforms signal that AI “is becoming mainstream,” Zimmerman says.

Megan Smith, an IU13 instructional technology integrator, says some teachers may fear that students will turn in other students’ work, but believes that fear is mostly unfounded.

“We support (AI) as a tool,” she explains. “It’s a tool for a kid who has writer’s block” and needs ideas.

How it’s in use.

While most school districts allow teachers to use AI for themselves or in front of students, rules surrounding pupils differ. For instance, the School District of Lancaster is just beginning to delve into creating some sort of student policy, says Wes Emlet, who manages instructional technology for the district’s technology integration department.

“ChatGPT is thinking outside the box,” Emlet notes. “It can help students be more creative.” Yet pupils need parental permission to use AI on campus, and ChatGPT and other AI platforms set age restrictions to at least 13 years old and up.

Administrators need to work out a plan acceptable to school board members and student families, Emlet says. “If we were to open it to students, at some point we will get to that conversation,” he notes. “We need to encourage people to use it responsibly.”

Eastern Lancaster County School District received a state grant to pilot an AI program this spring with in-house educational devices similar to those people use at home, such as Microsoft’s Alexa or Apple’s Siri. These digital assistants will not use the internet and will keep student information safe, says Adam Geiman, an instructional technology specialist in the district.

Michael Snopkowski, Elanco’s superintendent, plans to move cautiously. “At this point, we’ll get through our entire pilot process and evaluate the experience before we do anything regarding next steps of presentation,” he wrote in an email. “Like other tools in our classrooms, we need to better understand how AI will support the learning of our students before making any decisions on embedding it in our district.”

AI will improve education, says Nicole Malinoski, superintendent of the Lebanon School District. “It’s going to make monumental changes in how we make assignments,” she says.

For instance, in addition to citing sources in a research paper, students soon may need to submit all prompts or questions they entered into AI along with accompanying answers.

“AI will help increase the problem-solving process,” Malinoski says. “It’s going to allow our teachers to challenge our students, to up the bar on what we expect from them.”

Small pockets of teachers use AI in Lebanon classrooms, says Shawn Canady, chief information officer.

The future

Some teachers needlessly fear AI will replace them, Parry says. That worry is unfounded, though. “It’s good at filling out forms. But it’s not feedback or personal interaction, which is why teachers will continue to be important,” he explains.

Geiman, from Elanco, mentions the early 1970s, when calculators became popular. “That didn’t stop math teachers from having jobs.”

Avoiding AI, though, might hurt a teacher’s career, Geiman says.

“AI won’t take your job,” he says, “but someone who knows it will.”

For now, educational professionals seem excited about AI’s future. “Teachers are finding fascinating opportunities,” says J.P. McCaskey Principal Justin Reese.

“The amazing thing about this technology is that it’s ever-evolving,” Leister says.

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