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Is AI the new teacher's aide? Pamlico professor pioneers AI at community colleges

Zac Schnell, a biology professor at Pamlico Community College, champions the use of AI in education and has experimented with it in his classroom.
Ryan Shaffer
PRE News & Ideas
Zac Schnell, a biology professor at Pamlico Community College, champions the use of AI in education and has experimented with it in his classroom.

INTRO: Earlier this year, the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction released guidelines for the use of artificial intelligence tools in K-12 classrooms. That guidance spelled out how teachers can use AI to plan more efficiently as well as how AI skills ought to be taught. For higher education, however, there is no official guidance, leaving professors on their own -- especially at community colleges. PRE's Ryan Shaffer reports that while uptake at community colleges is low, one pioneering professor at Pamlico Community College is moving ahead and encouraging others to do the same . . .

AI has taken off in education this last year. For elementary and high school teachers, 40% say they have or plan to use AI this school year, according to a survey by the textbook publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Also in that survey, K-12 teachers are more likely than their students to be using AI. But for colleges, that finding is reversed. Students are ahead of their professors in adopting AI, as just a quarter of college educators say they've tried it out. Zac Schnell, an environmental biology professor at Pamlico Community College, is one of those professors.

"I see it as an opportunity for education to be really upgraded and to become something way better than it was before, as compared to the system that it's based on right now, which is from 100 years ago," he said. "I think some things have changed over 100 years from then to now."

Schnell is not shy about sharing his ideas. He's championed the use of AI in classrooms at conferences across the nation, and to his colleagues at Pamlico Community College.

"One thing I'm still surprised by a lot is people who ask 'What is ChatGPT?'" he said. "And I'm just like 'You've got to at least be aware of it because more than likely your students are aware of it.'"

His first selling point to hesitant colleagues is that the tool can help save time with lesson planning. Schnell prefers having students learn through projects -- rather than papers or problem sets -- but that requires a lot of planning. Schnell says that he's used AI tools like ChatGPT and Gemini to help redesign a course on water quality. He'd share information with the system and it'd spit out ideas for lessons and projects.

"I was able to redesign the course basically within two to three days as compared to doing something that would take me two to three months on average," Schnell said. "So, it's a huge time saver."

Schnell adds that in the semesters since he's adopted AI, his class is now able to take on more projects, going from just one or two in a given course to three or four, depending on the projects' scope and the size of the class.

"For example if you're working on a presentation to give to people, let this help come up with some talking points . . . so that way then you can use to figure out exactly where to start and where to go," Schnell said. "Now we've shortened that time so we're we can actually go through more material and do more stuff."

And that's the second selling point. Schnell says AI tools can be used to accelerate and deepen students' understanding.

Earlier this month, I sat in on Schnell's introductory biology course. With a class of 10 high-school juniors, Schnell led a tech-heavy lesson that concluded a unit on animal adaption and evolution.

It's an entertaining lesson meant to reinforce certain concepts. Students were tasked with creating an imaginary animal for a specific environment -- say a jungle or a desert. They then had to draft a prompt for DALL-E, an AI image generator, being sure to clearly communicate their vision or else the program would produce an inaccurate image. One by one they shared their creations. One had the head of a sloth, body of a bear, and skin of a lizard. Another was a cross between a rat and a vampire.

With images in hand, students assessed the animal for how well it is suited to its environment. So far, Schnell has used image generators like DALL-E, chatbots likes Chat GPT, and music generators in his lessons.

Caleb is a student in Schnell's intro biology course. He says in the course, he's learned the fundamentals of different AI program and how to use them appropriately.

"As long as you don't use it as a dependent source, but rather as tool, I don't see a problem with it," he said.

Caleb believes it's important to know how to use these tools, not just for employment prospects but also in personal life.

"I'm a creative writer and coming up with names for people and places is not the easiest thing," he said. "Putting it into an AI generator and using it for ideas is incredibly helpful."

These are both points Schnell emphasizes in his lessons and are included in the state's guidance for K-12 teachers.

"for the most part, educators and teachers are pretty excited about the possibilities and potentials. For integrating AI driven systems in classrooms today."

That's Krista Glazewski, an AI and education researcher at NC State. She's also the executive director of the Friday Institute, a research organization at NC State. Glazewski says teachers can use the models to not only plan ahead but also in real time to bounce ideas off of while helping students.

"We've all had that experience of explaining something and looking at who we're explaining to and just understanding they're not getting it," she said. "What these systems can do is help give the teacher a better example or a more concrete way of explaining something, and we don't often think of these tools as supporting the teacher."

While the potential applications are plentiful, Glazewski does caution that not every AI model is built the same and that leaders should fully understand the systems they're adopting.

"We have a lot of concern that some of these systems are based on and trained on incomplete data models, and when that happens it can lead to some students benefiting and other students not being represented," Glazewski said. "We want to pay attention to data models that are representative of race and gender and socioeconomic status."

According to a February report by the National Association of Educators, some AI systems have proved to have bias baked into them. Some systems do not recognize Black students' faces, and some AI-detection software have mistaken essays by non-native English speakers as being AI generated. The point, Glazewski says, is to ensure the systems deployed are fair and used appropriately.

"There's a lot of power and potential in many applications to support teachers in what they do best, which is connecting to learners and working with learners directly," she said.

In short, more time away from filling out paperwork means more time with students. Schnell, who unlike K-12 educators is not bound to a classroom all day, has used AI tools in several ways. He may open a lesson with having students use a chatbot to generate research questions and have students go find the answers. One of his favorite, and most common, uses is to have students use AI as a study tool to generate study questions or generate songs. He says the tech has enabled him to enhance his pedagogy, in which he strives to be more of a 'facilitator' than a lecturer.

Ryan is an Arkansas native and podcast junkie. He was first introduced to public radio during an internship with his hometown NPR station, KUAF. Ryan is a graduate of Tufts University in Somerville, Mass., where he studied political science and led the Tufts Daily, the nation’s smallest independent daily college newspaper. In his spare time, Ryan likes to embroider, attend musicals, and spend time with his fiancée.