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AI should be used in class, not feared. That’s the message of these Seattle area teachers

caption: Sean Mullin, a social studies teacher at Lake Washington High School, was an early adopter of artificial intelligence. He thinks it could be a solution to help with teacher burnout.
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Sean Mullin, a social studies teacher at Lake Washington High School, was an early adopter of artificial intelligence. He thinks it could be a solution to help with teacher burnout.

A classroom of 11th graders at Lake Washington High School in Kirkland is getting a history lesson about the Cuban Missile Crisis.

The class is divided into two teams. Students are assigned roles like President John F. Kennedy and Cuban dictator Fidel Castro.

They're simulating the negotiations between American and Soviet leaders — and have 22 minutes to prevent World War III from starting.

It gets tense — theatrical even — when the Americans attempt to oust Castro from the talks.

"There have been 100 attempts on my life to this day, by your government," the student playing Castro shouts, hitting his desk with his hand for dramatic effect. "Not a single has succeeded because you American dogs lack the skill required to put down a man as capable as I."

Sean Mullin is their teacher. He inherited this lesson from colleagues at Lake Washington High, and has used it for the past three years.

But this time, Mullin says the class got into it in a way they never have — and he believes it's because of AI.

Ahead of the talks, students asked AI questions like, "What did the Soviet Union want out of this conflict?" And that helped them brainstorm historically accurate talking points for the class discussion.

"AI generation was incredibly helpful of giving different ideological perspectives on the same events and allowing students to engage with multiple perspectives," Mullin said, "and have a really thorough understanding of multiple sides of a conflict."

Daisy Penney, one of Mullin's students, agreed that AI was helpful for the assignment. It was a lot faster than traditional research , although everything had to be edited and fact-checked, and it helped students brainstorm.

Penney said the new twist on the lesson gave them a chance to see how AI can enhance learning — not replace it.

Normally, when she thinks of a student using AI for schoolwork, she thinks of it as them just "telling Chat GPT to do all the work."

"But with that assignment, I actually learned how to use it to help me learn more," Penney said. "So I thought that was really helpful."

This is one small example of how teachers across Washington are starting to incorporate AI in the classroom and in their work, now that top education officials are pushing schools to embrace this new, ever-evolving technology.

State issues AI guidelines

Earlier this year, Washington became the fifth state in the country to issue guidance on using AI in school. Given the rise of AI in the workforce, state Superintendent Chris Reykdal said students here deserve to be "on the front end" of learning about it.

RELATED: Washington schools chief encourages educators to embrace AI and use it in class

Some teachers had already started experimenting with AI before the state guidance was released — including Clare Prowse. She's a biology teacher at O'Dea High School, a Catholic school for boys in Seattle's First Hill neighborhood.

Prowse never saw it as an option to ignore AI, and started experimenting with Chat GPT soon after it came out in late 2022 and she noticed students had started using it.

"It became pretty obvious very quickly this was going to be our new reality," Prowse said. "That kids are going to be using this and that we need to help to train them to think about it — to think critically about how to use it, to think sensitively about how to use it — and so that's been our goal."

About 18 months later, Prowse and her teaching colleagues at O'Dea all have access to Microsoft's AI, called Copilot, and they've learned a lot about the technology.

Prowse has seen some students use AI to cheat. But she says it's not as common as people fear.

In October, Stanford University researchers found cheating has not increased in U.S. schools since the launch of AI.

"I think that's the big misconception," Prowse said.

When cheating does happen, Prowse sees it as a teaching moment to show students how to use AI in safe, ethical ways.

"I'm just extremely clear with them about when I want them to use it and when I don't want them to use it," she said.

RELATED: People disagree about the risks and benefits of artificial intelligence

AI as teaching aid

There's another big way AI has changed things for Prowse. It's helped her save time on administrative tasks like brainstorming lesson plans, developing discussion questions, or creating the rubrics she uses to grade assignments.

Instead, she's able to spend more time on the important things, like spending time and giving feedback one-on-one with students.

"That's the bit — the 'What is the joy of teaching?' — and also the bit where the work really happens," Prowse said.

And some of those new lesson ideas have even included student use of AI — both to speed up the assignment, and expose students to a technology that's certain to be part of the rest of their lives.

In one assignment, Prowse has students create a new taxonomy of animals in an imaginary world they create. Instead of drawing their own animals, students used generative visual AI to create images.

And another example is when Prowse teaches about keystone species. She usually has students create a podcast. But now, Prowse allows students to tap AI for help writing their scripts.

"I've done that project before and the amount of time it takes them to create a script is maybe two whole lessons," she said. "They'll sit there and try to play around with it."

caption: Sean Mullin gives his students instruction before they start their simulation of the Cuban Missile Crisis negotiations. Students used AI to help them prepare for the discussion.
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Sean Mullin gives his students instruction before they start their simulation of the Cuban Missile Crisis negotiations. Students used AI to help them prepare for the discussion.

In Kirkland, Mullin agrees about AI's benefit to teachers. Like Prowse, he was an early adopter of AI, and these days, it plays both big and small roles in his lessons.

For example, before his U.S. history class got into the Cuban Missile Crisis, Mullin had his students use AI to get feedback on their essays on whether the U.S. dropping the atomic bomb was ethical.

Penney, one of Mullin's students, said using AI for feedback on the essay was not all that different from doing a regular peer review. But it did help her better understand what questions she needed to ask the chatbot in order to get useful feedback.

"I was asking pretty broad questions," Penney said. But when she asked questions like "How can I improve my transitions between paragraphs?" or "How can I improve my thesis?" she got better results.

AI also came in handy for another lesson Mullin created for his social justice class. They were learning about John Rawls' theory of justice, and Mullin had an idea. He wanted his students to compete to see who could create the most just society.

Mullin used AI to help him brainstorm different qualities of a society — saving hours of time both he and his students would've spent researching.

"Instead of having them sit and listen to a lecture about an old, dead philosopher, talking about abstract concepts, they were able to have this really hands-on, engaging, fun activity that I think got the point across much stronger," Mullin said.

And not only did the kids love it, but their busy teacher did, too.

"Given the constraints timewise and energy-wise, trying to have work-life balance, it wouldn't have been possible to do something like this, at least this year," Mullin said.

"It's saved me hours and hours of my life," he added. "And I think it's improved the content I put out into the classroom."

Mullin's new goal is to convince his fellow teachers to use AI.

Some of his colleagues are overwhelmed at the thought of learning a new technology or changing their curriculum. Or they're worried about catching students cheating.

"A lot of teachers just want to go back to doing everything on pen and paper in the classroom to prevent the opportunity for that," Mullin said. "But that doesn't feel like a long-term, sustainable solution either."

So, if you can't beat it, Mullin thinks teachers have to accept it.

With time, he thinks they may even see AI the way he does: As a remedy to teacher burnout.

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