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AI like ChatGPT isn't going away--educators must helps students understand how to use these tools to enhance their STEM learning experiences.

4 ways to use ChatGPT in your STEM classroom

AI isn't going away--educators must helps students understand how to use these tools to enhance their learning experiences

Key points:

  • ChatGPT isn’t a tool to be feared–it can contribute greatly to STEM learning
  • AI tools aren’t going away, and harnessing their capabilities is important

“If we teach today as we taught yesterday, we rob our children of tomorrow.” – John Dewey

Back in 2007 when I was teaching Algebra I at the local middle school, the biggest question for mathematics teachers on our campus was whether students could use their calculators while doing classwork and on standardized tests.  A few years later, the discussion changed to an argument about the pros and cons of using a Desmos calculator on their classroom iPads.  Using Desmos was seen as being particularly egregious, as educators feared that students may have access to the internet and may surf the web while they should be learning or during summative assessments. 

Each of these technologies paled in comparison to the impact of one of our students discovering Wolfram|Alpha and sharing the link with his classmates.  While using the calculator allowed students to quickly compute answers and a device with internet capabilities added the possibility of researching formulas and explanations, Wolfram|Alpha used the most current artificial intelligence (AI) to accurately solve mathematics problems using natural language processing. 

Teachers were faced with the idea that 21st-century technologies would fundamentally alter the way students learn and just as importantly, adjust the way teachers would need to facilitate instruction.

The ChatGPT Dilemma

In schools across the nation, educators have, once again, had to call into question how technology meshes with teaching and learning with the advent of ChatGPT

OpenAI’s ChatGPT is a language model for dialogue that can interact with end-users and provide answers to diverse inquiries using AI.  In its first 5 days of existence, it had accumulated 1 million users.  The solutions provided by the program are so varied and detailed that students have begun to use ChatGPT to get guided solutions to mathematics equations, draft poetry, write essays, and code computer programs. 

This has caused many institutions to find third-party applications to detect when ChatGPT is being used and have lengthy debates on the appropriateness of programs like this for our students.  I thought it would be an interesting exercise to ask ChatGPT itself if students should be able to use this type of technology in schools, and it gave an insightful response.  In short, ChatGPT recognized that it is a powerful tool for language understanding and generation that can be used in a variety of educational contexts but mentioned that factors such as student privacy and plagiarism should be considered.  Its final consideration was the most poignant for me as it stated that the program’s use should be balanced with other teaching methods and strategies to ensure that students are developing their own critical thinking skills.

Artificial intelligence and STEM

This idea of balancing teaching methods and strategies to incorporate new technologies stood out for me, so I made a point to discuss this idea with other STEM educators. I got feedback about traditional teaching approaches and brainstormed ideas for using AI models, like ChatGPT, to proactively introduce these tools and enhance student experiences in the classroom. 

Here are some ways that ChatGPT can be used across the STEM spectrum:

  1. Science: Many science teachers that I spoke with advocate for a flipped classroom approach.  I love using chatbot technology for this approach because it allows students to ask unlimited questions to formulate their own understanding of core subject matter before they ever enter the classroom.  I tested this out by asking ChatGPT question after question about genetic combinations, Punnett squares, and dominant/recessive genes to get a feel for how it would respond.  It gave me a great deal of useful information and even explained things in simpler language when asked to modify the responses for a middle school student.  The applications here are endless.
  1. Technology (Computer Science): A colleague of mine, who is a software engineer, was telling me about how he uses ChatGPT to help optimize his code.  This feature is highly transferable to computing courses.  If students are asked to complete coding assignments in their normal IDEs and then ask ChatGPT to enhance what they created, teachers can not only assess students’ ability to write their own methods but also can assess if students understand exactly why the optimization tool made the suggestions that it did.
  1. Engineering: While having students solve problems using the engineering design process, there are several places where natural language models can aid teachers in facilitating instruction.  ChatGPT can speed up the process of research problems and give potential solutions that students they hadn’t considered.  Additionally, once students have tested designs, they can ask ChatGPT to give suggestions for improvements and redesign.  Another interesting usage could be to ask the model to assist in coming up with the actual questions they want to investigate from the lens of another culture that they aren’t familiar with.
  1. Mathematics: Just as important as showing students what ChatGPT can do, is the idea of exploring what it cannot.  ChatGPT is not perfect and sometimes gives answers that are outright incorrect.  This fact can be leveraged by providing students with a collection of responses to mathematics word problems that were generated and having them determine which ones are correct.  A discussion about the specificity of prompts and reading word problems thoroughly has always been a focus in mathematics.  We can further explore this concept using ChatGPT.

It is important to understand that tools like ChatGPT aren’t going away, and companies like Google are developing similar products that will continue to refine the way artificial intelligence models are used in our society.  It is incumbent upon educators to understand how they work and redefine the way we integrate technology, assess knowledge, and facilitate instruction to our students who will live with tools like these for the rest of their lives.

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