Using Computer Science for Good — Kids’ Coding Club and Computer Science Education Week

Yesterday, to celebrate Computer Science Education Week, we focused on learning about one of the newest trends in computer science: machine learning artificial intelligence. We discussed how artificial intelligence can help humanity and the Earth, by making it easier to operate prosthetics, create tools for assisting people with disabilities, identify diseases and tackle environmental issues. But it can also be used for harm, such as to trick people into believing they are talking to a real person when they are not, or to trick people into believing they are watching a famous person say something they never really said. And this is just the start. That’s why it’s so important to learn how artificial intelligence works, so that we can harness its power for good and ethical purposes.

Code.org has a site offering resources about Computer Science for Good, and yesterday we tried out their cool AI for Oceans activity. This activity teaches kids how machine learning computers (AI) need lots of data in order to look for patterns and draw conclusions. Kids practice “teaching” the robot what is or isn’t a fish in order to clean up the ocean of trash. But there are challenges. You start to see that the robot is eliminating other sea animals, so kids have to teach it what belongs in the water and what doesn’t. Then kids try to teach it to distinguish between different types of fish. And finally, kids are asked to teach the robot to favor fish that embody a certain personality trait to them. This demonstrates to the child that the robot only discriminates based on the bias that is put into it. If you program the robot to favor only smiley fishes, it will eliminate frowning fishes that still have just as much right to live in the water!

After we finished that activity, we moved on to a Scratch activity. I showed the kids a Scratch project I had programmed:

In my project an underwater robot is trying to eliminate all objects of a certain shade of bright yellow, which its program tells it are plastic. This successfully eliminates some ocean trash, but it also eliminates many fish. I challenged the kids to see if they could program the fish to move faster, or program the robot to recognize more colors of plastic trash. They could also program the robot to respond to user commands, so that it doesn’t move automatically toward vulnerable fish but rather moves when the user tells it to.

I think we learned some really important things about how AI works as well as trying our hand at editing and modifying some Scratch code which is an important step in learning how coding works. We probably won’t have a coding workshop for a few months but hope you all can join us again. You were wonderful!

AnnMarie Kolakowski

I'm a youth services librarian working in the Children's Room at the Pasadena Central Library. I purchase juvenile nonfiction books for all sites, juvenile Spanish books for all sites, and juvenile DVDs for the Central Library. I do a lot of programs with school-age kids, including Lucha Libros, writing workshops, and STEAM/science programs. I also do 16 weeks of Infant/Toddler Storytimes each year. I love what I do, working with kids of all ages to inspire them to learn and use their curiosity and imaginations. Outside of my work at the library, I am also the author of a book on creative writing activities for kids.

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