2023 Visiting Scholar
We are all capable of understanding AI, talking about it at a high-level, and recognizing that it can be challenged.
Professor Meredith Broussard
In the 2022 - 2023 school year, The Agnes Irwin School proudly welcomed our Inaugural Visiting Scholar Professor Meredith Broussard to campus for a yearlong series of learning experiences that brought our students, parents, faculty, staff, alumnae, and broader community into illuminating conversations about the technological basis of artificial intelligence (AI), and its very human impact.
Professor Broussard collaborated with Agnes Irwin faculty and staff to host age-appropriate lessons on how AI systems are built, how these pattern-recognition technologies replicate the inequalities of the real world, and how our personal agency and critical thinking skills are important parts of reducing the harm that AI systems can cause.
LOWER SCHOOL LEARNING: ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE 101
Professor Broussard began her work in the fall of 2022 by hosting a Lower School Assembly with the youngest Owls. Using the language of the Lower School Leadership Toolkit, she highlighted how “Collaboration,” “Communication,” and “Reflective Thinking” help broaden one’s horizons and develop as a leader in the fields of science and technology.
Lower School STEAM Specialist Mary-Tyler Upshaw and Professor Broussard co-developed lessons for every grade in the Lower School that were both age appropriate and connected to existing curriculum. "Collaborating with Meredith allowed us to delve into the rapidly changing tech landscape and recognize that the same iterative processes we learn in school are the ones used by AI creators,” shared Mary-Tyler. “It affirms a key idea that we discuss, that all innovation occurs with iterative processes.”
To understand the connection of these concepts, PreK and K students dove into the story of Ada Twist, Scientist, discussing protagonist Ada’s penchant for inquiry, and how women in STEM can find their way to success through resilience and problem solving. First and second graders discussed how AI is not an independent brain while working through an exercise that demonstrated how AI-generated images can be traced back to key words and ideas. Third and fourth graders leveraged these insights to develop proper definitions for machine learning, data, and training data. Doing so allowed them to explore how generative AI can function as a “creative helper” in our work.
MIDDLE & UPPER SCHOOL INQUIRY: UNDERSTANDING AI IN CONTEXT
In the Middle and Upper Schools, Professor Broussard hosted divisional assemblies for students to learn the technological basis of AI and how the structure and application of AI must be considered through an ethical lens. “AI is just math – it is beautiful, complicated math,” Broussard explained. “We create a model to make sense of available data, and then reuse it to make predictions. But AI doesn’t make better decisions than people. You need to know when to push back when the math decision isn’t a good one.”
Students’ poignant questions during these divisional assemblies reflected deep intellectual engagement with Professor Broussard’s presentation. Regarding the technology, students wanted to know “Is Siri an AI model?” and “How does AI understand idioms?” They were also curious about how Broussard became the author, data journalist, and professor that stood in front of them. “What sparked you to become a writer?” asked one student, “How do you decide what to write about, and where do your ideas come from?”
Professor Broussard followed up her presentations by meeting middle and upper school students in their classrooms for more hands-on engagement. Similar to where the Lower School began their learning, middle and upper school girls covered explanations of key terms, venturing into the complexities of algorithms, models, and computational thinking. With these concepts in mind, each class embarked on activities and discussions that explored very human, intersectional implications of AI.
Middle School girls worked directly with Imagen – a text-to-image AI model developed by the Google Research Brain Team – to explore how AI-generated images can be traced back to key words and ideas, and how generative AI can be used to inspire greater original creativity. The girls also discussed where such tools surface ethical questions for consideration. “People embed their own biases into technology,” Professor Broussard explained to the middle schoolers. “All models reflect the biases of people who made them and the biases in the training data.”
Professor Broussard also collaborated with faculty to explore specific areas where curriculum intersected with her expertise in computational thinking, data journalism, and artificial intelligence. In the Upper School she co-led two Special Studies Programs as well as guided discussions in Honors-level English, math, and science classes. She also visited with the 5th grade Computer Science class to discuss their use of Hummingbird Bit to create a robot petting zoo.
“Professor Broussard's visit enabled our 5th grade computer scientists to connect the concepts and activities that we cover in class with the varied and complex ways that AI appears in our daily lives,” shared 5th Grade Computer Science Teacher Linda Moreen. “Her visit laid the foundation for deeper engagement with our Middle School CS curriculum, and it was wonderful to partner with Professor Broussard to connect our teaching of the ‘what’ with her exploration of the ‘why.’”
COMMUNAL LEARNING: BUILDING TECHNOLOGICAL CONFIDENCE ACROSS OUR SCHOOL ECOSYSTEM
Professor Broussard’s visiting scholarship was primarily designed to empower Agnes Irwin students to meet a rapidly changing technological future with understanding, confidence, and imagination, but the learning extended well beyond the girls themselves.
For faculty and staff, Professor Broussard led AI-focused professional development sessions that explored what AI is and isn’t, how it could be used as a productivity tool, and its implications for teaching and learning in the classroom. “Professor Broussard’s visit led me to challenge myself to open up my own practice,” remarked English Teacher Dr. Colbert Root. “I am exploring assignments that help us achieve the learning goals of traditional methodologies while maintaining academic honesty and creating space for students to become more skilled with these emerging technologies”
For our community of parents, faculty, staff, and alumnae, Professor Broussard headlined a pair of events meant to demystify AI as a technology and foster dialogue about the ways it shapes our individual and collective lives. At the Bryn Mawr Film Institute, we screened Coded Bias – an Emmy-nominated film which examines the source and impact of bias in AI. Professor Broussard, featured as an expert voice in the film, led an interesting post-film discussion with our multi-generational audience.
The discussion in the theater created an important space for communal learning that we expanded upon with an event on campus the following month. “The Evolving World of Artificial Intelligence” was an intimate TED-style presentation featuring Professor Broussard in conversation with WHYY Host and Creative Director Maiken Scott. In her opening presentation, Professor Broussard focused on explaining the nuts and bolts of generative AI so that the audience could become familiar with the underpinnings of any number of AI technologies.
After being joined on stage by Maiken Scott, the two science and technology leaders addressed a range of questions including: “How can we as parents keep up with everything that is changing around this topic of Artificial Intelligence? How can we contribute to getting more credible information into training data sets? What role do educational institutions play in creating better digitally informed citizens?” In many of her responses, Professor Broussard stressed the need for ongoing conversations with our young people, at home and in educational settings that teach digital, information, and computational literacy. “We can talk with each other and with our girls about what’s real and what’s imaginary about AI so that we can look at AI and say, ‘This is something that is made by people, it has flaws just like people do, and we have agency over the decisions that go into making and using these tools.’”
APPROACHING THE FUTURE FROM AHEAD OF THE CURVE
Professor Meredith Broussard’s multi-dimensional engagement on campus as our Inaugural Visiting Scholar gave our community an important primer on the technological basis of AI, along with the space to understand, discuss, and examine the very human implications of how this ubiquitous technology is built and used. “The impact of having a visiting scholar who specializes in artificial intelligence during the year that generative AI broke out of the lab and into the everyday world was tremendous,” remarked Julie Diana, Director of Curriculum, Learning Innovation, and Libraries. “Having an approachable expert demystify it for us allowed our students, families, faculty, staff, and alumnae to engage with AI in a way that helped us to understand its benefits and limitations.”
Our community gained a common language to talk about the various components of artificial intelligence, which has also provided a framework for us to understand new AI-powered technologies as they emerge. In a rapidly changing world, this technological confidence is exactly what is needed for all of us, especially our students, to be effective consumers, architects, and critics of technology. For faculty and staff, this year of exploration was particularly important, in that it allowed for a lightning-fast tackling of the learning curve that came with generative AI tools being widely accessible. With Professor Broussard’s expert guidance, faculty and staff worked together to set boundaries for AI’s use in the classroom while finding proactive ways to utilize it for enhanced teaching and learning.
Although there are a myriad of forums in which our community could have learned about the technical aspects of AI, Professor Broussard’s expertise in algorithmic bias was especially edifying. It was meaningful and prescient to examine the specific and demonstrable ways that unchallenged algorithms produce discriminatory information with real social consequences. Moreover, it was powerful to uncover our ability to talk about these topics, and to carry our learning into the decisions that we make in our everyday lives.
EMPOWERING Each GIRL TO LEARN, TO LEAD, AND TO Live A LEGACY
In the words of Professor Broussard, “These learning experiences put The Agnes Irwin School and its community at the forefront of these important academic conversations that truly will impact life as we know it for the span of our lives — and far beyond.”
We are proud to be an institution that develops responsive learning opportunities and empowers girls with transdisciplinary skills of the future. Thanks to the brilliance of our committed educators who partnered with Professor Broussard, this Visiting Scholarship constituted a new classroom for our entire community to practice our data literacy, critical thinking, and civil discourse skills. Through deep engagement, we emerged as more thoughtful and creative digital citizens, parents, educators, and industry leaders.
Since The Agnes Irwin School’s founding more than 150 years ago, we have maintained a trademark commitment to realizing a future where every girl achieves her own boundless vision of success. Against the backdrop of today’s shifting global landscape, we are especially proud to foster the intellectual curiosity and authentic inclusivity that drives Agnes Irwin girls to confidently and responsibly shape our collective future, for the good of all.
Professor Broussard's appointment and spring events were made possible by the generous support of Goldman Sachs, The Clower Family Speakers Fund, and the AIS Center for the Advancement of Girls. We are deeply grateful for their enormous contributions to the intellectual vitality of the Agnes Irwin School Community.