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UM teaching graduate jumps aboard AI education train

by CARY SHIMEK UM News Service
| May 9, 2024 12:00 AM

MISSOULA – Growing use of artificial intelligence is hurtling toward American classrooms like a freight train.

You can try to ignore it or get out of the way, but one University of Montana student has firmly stepped onto the tracks to embrace AI.

 “We all know this train is not stopping,” said Simon Hill, who will graduate May 11 from UM with a bachelor’s degree in biology. “It’s a new and a very rapidly developing technology. I know there are a lot of concerns with AI, but I also think it can help a lot of people — especially teachers.”

A native of Kalispell and 2020 graduate of Glacier High School, Hill complemented his UM major with a teacher preparation concentration in broad-field science and a certification in secondary education.

The budding Montana science teacher completed his student teaching this semester at Sentinel High School in Missoula. There he worked with the Technology Committee, which was considering an AI service for teachers. The 22-year-old Hill immersed himself in the work and eventually wound up presenting several workshops to experienced Sentinel teachers about AI’s classroom potential.

“It would be an accomplishment for any teacher to offer professional development for their peers,” said Anna Kiley, Hill’s adviser and the director of clinical experiences for UM’s Phyllis J. Washington College of Education. “But it is exceptional when a student teacher provides this education for their colleagues.”

How did Hill acquire his AI expertise?

“I think I’m from the click-and-play generation,” he said, with a laugh. “If you really don’t know what something is about, just kind of click and mess around with it until you figure it out or blow something up. And apparently this worked out.”

Educators are asked to do a lot, and Hill’s workshops focused on ways AI can reduce teacher workload, both in the classroom and beyond. He demonstrated how AI can be used to design units, condense textbook readings into essential knowledge and make lessons more fun and interactive.

“As an example, I asked AI to write me a storyline about all the organelles in a cell as if they were characters from a Wild West film,” Hill said. “It came up with something where the nucleus is the sheriff — which is awesome — and the mitochondria are like all the people in the saloon. And they get all riled up with energy and then go burn it out on the town. It was really cool and more creative than I expected.”

His workshops also covered using AI to create individual education plans or alternative lesson plans for students. As an example, if English is a student’s second language, AI could translate content into their native language — especially high-level concepts. He said AI also can help teachers rephrase and explain complex terminology, helping students overcome learning gaps.

In his workshops, Hill emphasized that AI is “absolutely not” at a stage where it could replace good teachers. But will students use it to cheat?

“And that is a definite yes,” he said. “Students will take the path of least resistance. But this is now a technology they have access to in the real world, and we need to start thinking how we can train students to use it appropriately. We can mitigate its use in class and design lessons where AI isn’t going to be as helpful.”

Hill has used AI to make his own life easier – from helping prepare lesson plans to creating practice activities for the Sentinel High School Speech and Debate Team. He said his UM education and student-teaching experience made it clear that teachers are asked to do a lot, and AI might help them avoid burnout.

“As a new teacher, I love what I do,” he said. “First and foremost, I think teaching is the best profession in the world, and nobody can tell me otherwise. I also know that in order to keep having fun with it, I need to maintain a good work-life balance. AI was an exciting thing to start learning about and get intrigued by, and I soon started to realize where it could help me.”

The son of two educators, Hill already has started substitute teaching at Missoula’s Big Sky High School. His family has deep ties to UM. His father, Micah, took graduate classes from the University, his older brother, Noah, attended law school at UM and his sister, Annie, is now in UM’s physical therapy program.

Hill is excited to forge his own future as a teacher after graduation — one that includes AI.

“It definitely doesn’t replace being a good teacher,” he said. “But there is tons of potential for AI to support and enhance both teaching and learning.”