Getting Serious About Teaching Kids Artificial Intelligence

What we need is here—now!

COOL TOOLS | by Mark Gura

Sitting in the family room with my Echo Dot smart speaker, Lenovo smart clock, and iPhone at arms’ length, I decided to call a meeting of the minds. My virtual friends, Alexa, Google Assistant, and Siri were all listening as I wondered out loud, “Are our kids being made aware of how the world is changing through Artificial Intelligence and what they must learn to take charge of it?”

My three discussion partners all affirmed that they and a multitude of peer devices are ready to support humans who see the impact of AI and who want to make sure that kids understand and are prepared to assume their role in it.

My three discussion partners all affirmed that they and a multitude of peer devices are ready to support humans who see the impact of AI …’

And then, for some solid insight into how to make this actually happen in classrooms, I turned to fellow human, Jamie Sachs, Senior Director of Education – North America at UBTECH, a company whose impressive, school-friendly student robotics kits I’ve admired for some time. Importantly, a short while back, UBTECH released an AI Foundations curriculum.

AI Curriculum and Foundations

I was surprised at first, as I think many may be, at how some of this AI curriculum can be taught without the use of tech hardware. In essence, it’s an exploration of a crucial variety of 21st-century thinking – the ways computers think, and by extension, how humans must think, in order to program them to be intelligent.

UBTECH’s AI Foundations curriculum is based on important work done by the organization AI4K12, a partnership consisting of AAAI (The Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence) and CSTA (The Computer Science Teachers Association) and funded by the National Science Institute and Carnegie Mellon University.

They’ve distilled the essence of AI to be accessible for the masses of students and their teachers. The work lays out 5 basic principles of Artificial Intelligence:

1) Perception, computers perceiving the world through sensors;

2) Representation for Reasoning, using data, computers construct representations of things perceived for use in the essential functions of reasoning;

3) Learning, computers learn from data collected and represented – Machine Learning is a kind of statistical inference based on data patterns;

4) Natural Interaction – based on data and pattern-based learning, computers and the machines they direct interact with humans using elements like language and recognition of faces and emotional expressions, drawing on knowledge of culture and social conventions in order to infer meaning and possible behaviors in response; and

5) Social Impact – AI can impact society in powerful positive and negative ways, making it important to study and evaluate its impact and making it important to establish ethical criteria for impact and to refine AI applications accordingly.  

What’s Important for Students to Know

Unlike many of the student robotics providers I’ve followed over the years, UBTECH has been a significant provider of commercial robots in demanding real-world areas like industry and medicine. Interestingly, the company recently made a stir in the news by developing a UV disinfecting robot that would render schools more COVID safe and support their reopening for renewed fact-to-face, on site learning. The company now provides robotics-based learning resources for the world of education.

Against this backdrop I value their take on what’s important to educate young minds about the field of AI. While the ultimate goal and intended impact of the curriculum is to understand and participate in the world of digital technology, the curriculum also addresses students at the all-important thinking and understanding, pre-digital level of foundational AI concepts. My sampling revealed it to be a rich body of work, well thought out and importantly, voiced and developed in ways that a great many of today’s students and teachers will find accessible. Interesting, amusing, and engaging, it represents a significantly deeper dive into the subject of thinking than students ordinarily would be afforded. For instance, it guides students through activities that involve understanding and working with data, models and representations, and flow charts.

Impressively, this is a curriculum that is organized in grade bands that includes K-2, 3-5, 6-8, and 9-12, anticipating a just-over-the-horizon understanding by educators in preparing students for the world of work that they will enter, but also crucially, for the types of homes and worlds they’ll live in and the types of schools they learn in—all of which are increasingly becoming AI-driven.

An AI Sandbox and Coding Environment

Importantly, UBTECH has provided what in my mind amounts to something of an AI sandbox in which kids can try out and play with the concepts and approaches covered in the curriculum by applying them to hands-on robotics materials.

The UBTECH online resource uCode, is a free coding environment that includes easy, drag and drop block-based coding, 3D virtual robots and a variety of programming extensions including AI and video sensing, among others. With AI extensions, students can interact with different AI programs and build machine learning models that can interact with physical and virtual robots in real time. Students can also construct pre-designed robots using 3D build instructions or create unique custom designs that connect to uCode via an Arduino compatible microcontroller.

Name One Technology

Has any technology development in recent years been more impactful on human life than Artificial Intelligence? A few possible contenders come to mind: the global connectedness of the smartphone, a powerful computer in everyman’s pocket; social media. Yeah, but—that man’s destiny-changing creation, The Machine, has now been transformed to learn and respond, powerfully impacting the world in an ever-expanding number of ways—is humbling and awe-inspiring. So shouldn’t fostering student learning about AI be a high-priority learning goal? Of course! The very good news is that a body of resources to make than happen is here and available.


AI4K12 website with 5 Big Ideas in AI poster, and more.

The UBTECH online resources site

offer uCode, a free coding environment that includes easy, virtual block-based coding, AI and Video Sensing extensions, etc. 

UBTECH AI Webinars webinar series (2020)

A new webinar series starting in June that will have some sessions that touch on AI and some that are fully devoted to AI. All of the session descriptions can be found at

Mark Gura is Editor-at-Large for EdTech Digest and author of The Edtech Advocate’s Guide to Leading Change in Schools (ISTE), and co-author of State of EdTech: The Minds Behind What’s Now and What’s Next. He taught at New York City public schools in East Harlem for two decades. He spent five years as a curriculum developer for the central office and was eventually tapped to be the New York City Department of Education’s director of the Office of Instructional Technology, assisting over 1,700 schools serving 1.1 million students in America’s largest school system. In addition to his role at EdTech Digest, he is currently a professor at Touro College Graduate School of Technology.


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