New Gwinnett high school brings tech curriculum update

Alyssa Jones would be on Broadway if the 13-year-old had to choose a career path now. But the showcase that the eighth-grader participated in last week was slightly less theatrical.

Alyssa and three friends surrounded a screen on a classroom wall at Jones Middle School, drawing with their fingers while algorithms tried to guess the objects.

Jones Middle began implementing a science curriculum with an increased focus on artificial intelligence this year, while the Gwinnett County Public Schools board of education reassigned it and three elementary schools to feed Seckinger High, scheduled to open in August 2022.

The entire Seckinger feeder pattern, from kindergarten through high school, is piloting artificial intelligence lessons that will eventually spread through the entire school district.

Gwinnett school leaders say all children need to learn to understand artificial intelligence because the technology is already ubiquitous and will only grow more important by 2033, when today’s kindergartners graduate high school.

Although Alyssa doesn’t plan a career in computers, she knows theater lights and sound boards use artificial intelligence.

“We use it even when we don’t think we’re using it,” she said.

The Gwinnett district has allocated $97 million to build Seckinger, a traditional campus in the fast-growing northern part of the county a few miles from increasingly crowded Mill Creek High, which Seckinger will relieve. The new campus will include stadiums and ball fields and hold up to 3,000 students, Mostaghimi said.

Harmony, Ivy Creek and Patrick Elementary Schools will feed into Jones Middle and then Seckinger High.

The Seckinger cluster is including artificial intelligence activities and vocabulary in core subjects starting with the littlest children, said Logan Malm, director of elementary science in Gwinnett.

First-graders are problem-solving to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in the correct order, second-graders are using cards to create an algorithm that moves a robot and third-graders are programming Lego robots, Malm told the school board last month.

In addition to the revamped science curriculum, Jones Middle recently started a drone club and a robotics team, Principal Memorie Reesman said.

Several middle-schoolers at Jones showed their artificial intelligence activities and projects to elementary school teachers last week to help them prepare lessons.

For the county science fair, some eighth-graders used the Python language to code Punnett squares, diagrams that use parents’ genetic codes to determine their children’s possible outcomes.

Benjamin Ellefson, 13, said he got the idea after tiring of the charts during a genetics unit.

“I decided to make a thing where I didn’t have to write out a Punnett square,” Benjamin said.

Artificial intelligence themes will also be integrated into core classes at Seckinger. Gwinnett’s career and technical education department is working with the Georgia Department of Education, local universities and industry leaders to design a three-course pathway in artificial intelligence, said Babak Mostaghimi, assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction.

The artificial intelligence pilot isn’t just about math and programming, Mostaghimi told the school board.

“It’s also about creative problem solving, thinking deeply and collaborating with individuals around you to solve the things that matter in your communities,” he said. “It’s about ethics and decision making. An algorithm doesn’t just decide on its own what happens. There’s a human behind it that builds up the code and the programming, and we want to make sure our kids are thinking about bias and the principles.”

The artificial intelligence pilot goes “hand in glove” with Computer Science 4 All, an initiative to expand access to computer science classes beyond the usual high school elective offerings, Mostaghimi said. Computer science and artificial intelligence have overlapping components, such as data analysis and ethics, that have become foundational lessons for every student, administrators said.

More elementary schools will offer computer science as a new rotating “special” class, along with others such as art and music, Malm said. More schools will also offer the established science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) special, which teaches skills necessary for middle school computer science, Malm said.

To comply with a new state law, most Gwinnett middle schools last year started offering three electives related to computer science, said Tim Hemans, executive director of career and technical education. The goal is for all middle schools to offer them and to expand the Advanced Placement Computer Science course sequence to all high schools, Hemans said.

Gwinnett has taken its cue from the national Computer Science 4 All initiative, which aims to increase diversity in a field where women, Black and Hispanic workers are underrepresented, although jobs are in high demand and pay well.

Giving computer science lessons in early grades in famously diverse Gwinnett increases the likelihood that more students from underrepresented populations will pursue advanced computer science courses and careers in the field, administrators said.

“We’re trying to reframe who computer science is for,” Mostaghimi said. “We think that if we do it with every child, from the beginning, we can change that narrative.”