campus news

Task force calls for interdisciplinary approach to integrating AI into the classroom

E. Bruce Pittman opens the AI Forum.

E. Bruce Pitman, interim vice president and chief information officer, speaks at the May 14 forum during which the Generative AI Task Force reported the findings of its initiative exploring the possible uses of GAI in teaching and learning at UB. Photo: Douglas Levere


Graduate student, Department of Environment and Sustainability

Published June 10, 2024

“There’s a widespread recognition that our students are going out into a world in which generative AI is just part and parcel of what they will face. We need to get our students prepared so that when they graduate, they are ready to go into the workforce. ”
E. Bruce Pitman, interim vice president and chief information officer

UB’s Generative AI Task Force reported the findings of its yearlong, campuswide initiative to explore the possible uses of generative AI (GAI) in the classroom at a forum last month that also featured a wide-ranging discussion on the technology.

Led by E. Bruce Pitman, interim vice president and chief information officer, and professor in the Department of Materials Design and Innovation, the forum focused on guidelines regarding implementation of GAI in coursework and the ethics and data-privacy implications of using GAI, as well as how to teach students and faculty to use the tool.

Pitman opened the forum by delivering a series of recommendations for the university. Among them were the creation of a faculty training resource, a grants program to encourage new ways of using GAI and a “sandbox” laboratory to explore the uses of AI. He also encouraged creating a policy for the ethical use of GAI — to be included in all course syllabi — and incorporating GAI usage guidelines from professional societies into the curriculum.

Pitman cited some concerns that had been expressed during task force meetings, such as accessibility to GAI programs based on student socioeconomic status, the intellectual property and cheating implications of GAI usage for assignments and the implicit bias in AI software.

In conducting its work, the task force had met throughout the fall semester with faculty and staff from key units, and had incorporated survey results from an even larger pool of faculty to better understand where more education about GAI was needed in order to work around those concerns.

“We think faculty members are clamoring for a resource for training on the use of generative AI in the classroom,” Pitman said. “We want to encourage instructors to explore and develop new ways of using generative AI in the curriculum and to share ideas.” 

Pitman praised the members of the task force, calling them “a wonderful group of faculty and staff members who dedicated their time to study and understand the evolving landscape of generative AI in the teaching and learning sphere.”

“I am very pleased to see the university invest in this important initiative,” Pitman said.  

Discussion panel from left, David Castillo, Kenny Joseph, Maria Rodriguez and Christina Wang.

A panel featuring faculty members (from second left) Kenny Joseph, Maria Rodriguez and Christine Wang facilitated the discussion. At far left is David Castillo, professor of Spanish and co-director of the Center for Information Integrity, who served as moderator. Photo: Douglas Levere

Graham Hammill, vice provost for academic affairs, echoed Pitman’s sentiments. “I’m grateful for the collaborative work of the Generative AI Task Force,” said Hammill, who had charged the panel with exploring how GAI can be used in teaching and learning at UB.

“The report and recommendations will help the university understand the areas of focus and guide our work on becoming leaders in generative AI as it relates to teaching and learning.

“Ensuring we are addressing the needs of our faculty and students as AI becomes more prevalent in teaching and learning is critical to our mission,” he said.

Following Pitman’s presentation, the forum opened for discussion. Hammill asked how developments in AI technology might impact students’ careers.

Members of the university community from different departments shared their perspectives on the uses of AI in their fields; one faculty member from the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences said they expected changes in medical careers given the accuracy of AI in examining tissue samples. 

“There’s a widespread recognition that our students are going out into a world in which generative AI is just part and parcel of what they will face,” Pitman said. “We need to get our students prepared so that when they graduate, they are ready to go into the workforce.”

But, Pitman said, the task force recognizes the variability of AI education for incoming undergraduate and graduate students, and suggests UB consider implementing a foundational GAI course for all students during their first semester at UB. 

“Lots of the high schools are sort of interested in using GAI, but they don’t have the experience and understanding of GAI tools in order to effectively teach those high school students, so they’re really at a loss,” Pitman explained.

He suggested not only teaching students how to use these tools, but also how they work so they can understand where the data comes from and the implicit bias in the data. 

“They’ve been using these tools, but they don’t know what’s going on under the hood,” he said. 

One of the largest concerns expressed by forum attendees was how students and faculty can develop their understanding of GAI when the technology continues to advance so rapidly. 

“The pace of expanded access to generative AI is remarkable. I expect this could lead to tremendous innovation,” Hammill said. “But this is likely also to be a challenge for the development of guidelines, as well as for the assessment of the efficacy of generative AI and teaching and learning, as the tools are changing very, very rapidly.”

A PhD student and former teacher shared their perspective on how young kids keep up with changing technology. “What are they doing that we don’t do?” they asked. “They play — they get on there and they see what they can do.”

Other attendees offered suggestions for ways to “gamify” faculty AI education in the proposed “sandbox” laboratory. 

But keeping up with technology requires collaboration between university departments. To facilitate an interdisciplinary discussion on the topic, the forum included a panel featuring Kenny Joseph, associate professor of computer science and engineering and associate director for AI and society at UB’s Institute for Artificial Science and Data Science; Maria Rodriguez, assistant professor in the School of Social Work and adjunct assistant professor of computer science and engineering; and Christine Wang, director of the Fisher Price Endowed Early Childhood Research Center and associate dean for research in the Graduate School of Education. Wang is also an affiliate of the Institute for Artificial Intelligence and Data Science.

Christina Wang responds to a question from a forum participant.

Panelist Christine Wang (right) told forum attendees that humans are much better than AI “at creatively finding solutions” to issues that require an interdisciplinary approach. Photo: Douglas Levere

In response to audience questions about human professionals remaining relevant in the face of growing AI capabilities, Wang reflected on the ability of humans to build and maintain relationships and understand nuance, which she said is all part of working on interdisciplinary projects, such as implementing GAI in the curriculum. 

“Methodology means very different things in different disciplines, and to develop these relationships is really fundamental to the success of interdisciplinary work,” Wang said. “I think this is a complex problem that requires a complex interdisciplinary approach, and we’re much better than AI at creatively finding solutions to these problems.”

Forum attendees shared their experience with such technological advancements as Google and Wikipedia during their schooling, which were predicted to ruin students’ ability to think critically, but are now standard use in schools. However, panelists wondered if GAI would withstand the test of time in the same manner. 

Regardless of the persistence of the technology and the struggles of implementing GAI education, panelists and forum attendees agreed that a student-forward approach — “a focus on the person in the chair” as one attendee described it — is necessary to retain and uplift students and the value of the university in the face of these challenges. 

“Generative AI is touching our lives at UB in so many different ways, and I look forward to continuing the conversations with colleagues from all across the campus to think through the best way for us to incorporate these tools into our work,” Pitman said. 

Hammill said he will consider the task force recommendations and develop an implementation plan for the fall semester. The task force will continue to meet with Hammill to discuss that plan.

More about the task force, as well as its report, can be found on the Academic Affairs website.