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The Many Hats of David Touretzky: Curriculum Developer, Artificial Intelligence Researcher and Multiengine Pilot

When AAAS Member David Touretzky, Ph.D., took a close look at the computing standards published by the Computer Science Teachers Association (CSTA), several things did not add up. “I found out that they only had two sentences about Artificial Intelligence (AI) and both of those sentences were for students in the 11th to 12th grades,” he says. “We needed to do something about this and I formed the AI for K-12 Initiative (AI4K12).” 

headshot of David Touretzky, Ph.D.
David Touretzky, Ph.D.

In 2018, Touretzky collaborated with Christina Gardner-McCune, Ph.D., from the University of Florida, Fred Martin, Ph.D., from the University of Massachusetts Lowell, and Deborah Seehorn from CSTA. Together, they worked with CSTA and the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence to create national guidelines specifically for teaching AI in grades K-12. They were able to do so with funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF). “We were developing the framework and guidelines that curriculum writers could reference so that they would understand what concepts the curriculum needs to cover,” notes Touretzky. 

Inserting AI in an already crowded school calendar was going to be daunting. Touretzky, aware of this, received additional funding from the NSF for a pilot project with the Georgia Department of Education to road-test his idea of not just teaching AI to grades K-12, but also equipping teachers with the skills to do so—AI4GA. It officially began on May 1, 2021 as another collaborative research project between Touretzky and Gardner-McCune.

Teaching AI to K-12 students is not without its fair share of critics, with skeptics questioning the utility of teaching kindergartners about AI. Touretzky has acknowledged the doubts, but is quick to offer his rebuttal. “By the time these kids get to kindergarten, they have spent the last two years talking to Alexa. They are growing up, riding in cars that have computer vision systems with things like lane departure warnings,” he says. “They are growing up with AI, all we want to do is let them understand it.”

AI education tends to skip certain demographics in the United States, either deliberately or by accident. This is not something new to Touretzky, who helped lead a lengthy project as part of NSF's Broadening Participation in Computing program that worked with Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

“I think people are more sensitive now to the need to make sure the less economically wealthy districts don’t get left behind,” he says. To make AI as inclusive as possible, the AI4K12 Initiative is pilot testing AI demos that can run on any machine that supports a modern web browser so that the needed software does not require installation. 

Beyond the world of robotics and computing, Touretzky flies his twin-engine Piper Seneca II known as “The Beast” as a hobby. As a young graduate student at Carnegie Mellon University, out of curiosity he joined the flying club. “I just thought that pilots were some extraordinary breed of human being and I wasn’t. I met a bunch of grad students and I said if they can do it, I can do it,” he remembers. “Someone took me up for a ride and I never recovered.”

At one point, his hobby of flying planes turned into a life-saving activity. In the dead of night, when most commercial flights were not flying, Touretzky would quietly start his engines. “For a number of years, I flew transplant organs for medical patients, like livers and kidneys…I did it for free, it was rewarding and very exciting.”

While Touretzky no longer moonlights delivering organs for transplant recipients, there is still excitement in his current position as a Research Professor in the Computer Science Department and the Center for the Neural Basis of Cognition at Carnegie Mellon University. His interests now include cognitive robotics—equipping robots with the ability to think, remember, judge and solve problems. In 2017, he built a software tool called Calypso designed for the Cozmo robot that came out in 2016.

“It was the first affordable consumer robot with real computer vision built in,” Touretzky explains. Cozmo has a camera that allows the robot to see and manipulate objects accurately. “It also allows the robot to navigate accurately, and to recognize faces. It's a ground-breaking robot that has the potential to revolutionize K-12 AI education.”

Calypso remains a work in progress. “It continues to be developed by a team of professional programmers working under my direction,” Touretzky says. “Sometimes when people use Calypso with kids, I get a chance to look over their shoulders and I see what the kids are doing. I notice something that was unclear to them and think about how it could be made clearer.  I notice something they're trying to do and think about new features that can be added to Calypso to support that."

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