The Next AI Mogul May Be From North Dakota

From coast to coast, the consequences of artificial intelligence and cybersecurity are increasingly weighing on the minds of D.C. policymakers, Silicon Valley investors and Hollywood stars alike. In North Dakota, the technologies will soon preoccupy an entirely different community: public school teachers and their students.In March, North Dakota became the first U.S. state to require students to take cybersecurity or computer science classes before graduating from high school. And while that graduation requirement won’t take effect until 2025, state lawmakers also gave school districts until next July to establish computer science and cybersecurity “integration plans” that weave these vital subjects into all aspects of their K-12 curriculum. To help local leaders meet this deadline, the state government is modernizing standards last updated in 2019 with new guidance on teaching subjects like artificial intelligence.The new standards “are going to be on a shorter timeframe of renewal and updating than our other content standards, just because of the nature of the content,” North Dakota Superintendent of Public Instruction Kirsten Baesler said in an interview. She added that AI will likely have “a significant presence” in the updated standards, which will be completed next summer.“There was some mention of AI” in the 2019 standards, Baesler said. “But now, when we talk about a new generation of generative AI, [it’s] a whole new ballgame.”Baesler has made technology and cybersecurity education a top priority since taking over as North Dakota’s education chief 10 years ago. It’s a worthy goal, with experts warning that the flourishing AI leadership and face growing cybersecurity threats if it doesn’t quickly begin filling hundreds of thousands of vacant jobs in these vital industries. North Dakota’s pioneering program could offer insights to other states that hope to create similar systems.North Dakota isn’t known for a thriving tech sector the way states like California and Texas are, but officials are hoping that their tech-education plan will make a hub of the country’s future workforce. It’s a high-stakes plan aimed at reducing North Dakota’s dependence on the doomed fossil-fuel industry that currently dominates the state’s economy.Baesler promotes this vision every time she meets with local leaders. Tech workers with remote jobs “can live in those communities, staff those volunteer firefighting departments, and have a really high quality of life in North Dakota,” she said, arguing that a financial boon awaits the first state to combine tech talent incubation with affordable living.For the new curriculum, Baesler has leaned heavily on a partnership with the state IT department’s EduTech team, drawing on its staff’s technical background to help refresh the state’s lesson-planning guidance. She said EduTech “plays a critical role in ensuring that those resources remain up to date, robust and engaging for our students.” When she spoke to The Messenger, she was in the middle of several email conversations with EduTech officials and members of her team about “exciting” AI lesson suggestions to add to the updated standards. As this year’s president of the Council of Chief State School Officers, Baesler has tried to put AI on the national education agenda too. The group invited CEO Hadi Partovi to its summer leadership conference to discuss how generative AI will, in Baesler’s words, “transform education.” Partovi co-founded a “TeachAI” initiative focused on improving educators’ understanding of the benefits and risks of the emerging technology, and North Dakota is an enthusiastic member of the movement.AI is “probably one of the most in-demand professional development [certificates] among our school teachers and leaders across the state right now,” Baesler said. Teachers want to know how they can use AI to make their jobs easier and to make their lessons more engaging, as well as how they can teach students to use AI responsibly.As part of the new mandate for schools to integrate cybersecurity and computer science into existing curricula, Baesler has seen a wide range of educators, from music and art teachers to physical-education and math instructors, apply for cybersecurity credentials. “We, interestingly, had a lot of English language arts teachers that chose to get credentialed,” she said, attributing that to teachers’ belief that cybersecurity will “bring a whole new level of engagement for this generation of students.”Already this school year, Baesler’s team has seen evidence that school districts are well on their way to credentialing enough teachers to deliver the ambitious new cybersecurity curriculum. Teachers tell her office that “this actually adds so much more excitement and a whole new level of engagement to their primary content area.”And while school districts are responsible for coming up with their own plans for integrating cyber and computer science lessons into existing curricula, Baesler said there are “some really phenomenal coalitions of districts” that are developing plans together. Her office will share those plans statewide, and she expects many districts to borrow from them.Baesler sees this strategy of introducing students to cybersecurity in multiple contexts — rather than just one simple “Cyber 101” class — as both something that sets North Dakota apart from its peers and something that will be key to its success in delivering these much-needed lessons.“It won’t be something they learn in isolation,” she said. “They’ll be learning how to recognize patterns and algorithms as they’re learning English or science or social studies or mathematics.”Based on her conversations with young people, Baesler also believes that expanding tech and cyber education, and weaving lessons about issues like AI into existing classes, will keep students engaged at school.“You don’t have to work to get them excited about using these tools and learning about this,” she said. “This is an opportunity for us to really combat the chronic absenteeism that we’re talking about all the time. We have to reinvent the way that we do school.”There is also a public-service component to Baesler’s push for better cybersecurity education. Students are important gatekeepers of their communities’ digital security, because they access school networks that connect to other systems holding reams of sensitive financial and medical data. And schools are now the top target for cyber criminals, resulting in canceled classes and leaks of highly private information. North Dakota students understand their role in preventing these attacks, Baesler said, and she wants to equip them with the right defensive knowledge and skills.“I am so very impressed with the young people of this generation,” she said. “They get it in a way that even my generation doesn’t.”Baesler also sees digital security education as a way to steer young people away from lives of cyber crime, combating a dangerous recent trend of teenage hackers perpetrating costly and far-reaching digital attacks.“These young people are curious, and they are going to want to explore,” Baesler said. “Let’s not put that in a box and make them do it hiding in the dark of the night in their bedroom. … Let’s encourage them to bring that out.”

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