CompTIA Spark Curriculum: AI Doesn’t Have to Be Hard—or Scary

By Scott Campbell

One of the biggest inhibitors to getting students interested in tech—and teachers believing they’re qualified to teach it—is having the confidence that they can do it, that it’s not too difficult, too complex or too scary. And is there anything more intimidating right now than artificial intelligence (AI)? But AI can be broken down into simple concepts so that middle-grade students can understand not only how it works but how it can be applied in the real world.

That’s the goal of the Artificial Intelligence (AI) & Chatbots unit of the CompTIA Spark curriculum—online, project-based in-school lessons designed to teach and then actively apply digital skills to solve actual problems.

In the AI and Chatbots unit, students create a chatbot to better serve customers in a small business. The lessons expose students to a variety of technologies, applications and experiences, all while teaching students the basic concepts and progression of AI, according to Travis Bower, senior manager of curriculum development at CompTIA Spark. Foundational skills learned will include critical thinking, language models, chatbot software and generative AI concepts.

“After learning a brief overview of AI in our current state, students learn to create a chatbot for their family’s pizzeria. They first learn how to create a rule-based chatbot and develop an understanding of how large language models (LLMs) are created and trained. They then use this knowledge to upgrade their chatbot to an AI-enhanced chatbot to better meet the needs of their customers,” Bower said.

The lessons are easy for the students to understand—even AI concepts, according to Raquel Rosales, a CTE teacher at the Fort Worth ISD in Texas.

“The kids are interested in the AI & Chatbots unit because it’s current material—it’s not 10 years behind, like we see with a lot of other materials. They’re obsessed with anything AI or technology at this age. They can connect it with what they see on social media and on the news. That helps keep their focus and their engagement,” Rosales said. “It also allows students to get a career pathway touch to cybersecurity and other programs in the high school. That’s an added benefit that helps keep their interest.”

Getting Ahead of the AI Revolution

As the adoption of LLMs like ChatGPT become more prevalent—with both pros and cons—AI will play a bigger part of everyone’s lives for the foreseeable future, said Bower. For this reason, CompTIA Spark created the AI-focused unit. It’s important to teach kids today the skills and knowledge they will need to unlock their potential tomorrow.

“By 2027, the AI market is expected to be worth $407 billion, with the majority of adults worldwide foreseeing AI impacting their lives in the next three to five years. We use a real chatbot-creating platform, Voiceflow, which allows students to create their own chatbot and work to embed AI into them to make a very customer-friendly chatbot. Using this platform, students can create a user-friendly experience using AI to ensure the best customer service for their patrons.”

CompTIA Spark curriculum demonstrates to students how technologies are used by businesses and individuals now. The AI unit acknowledges that AI and chatbot creation is a growing field and that new tools and resources are changing how businesses do marketing and customer service.

Companies are starting to invest more in creating AI enhanced chatbots that are capable of working with customers and assist in the overall function of their company,” Bower said. “In fact, 45% of executives have shared that they are investing more in AI since ChatGPT has hit mainstream life. Combine that with the $140 million in funding that the Biden administration has allocated for National AI research Institutes, AI will be a growing field for years to come.”

AI is a popular tech topic with students because it’s becoming increasingly ubiquitous in their lives, according to Amanda Kulak, a technology education teacher at Magnolia Middle School in Magnolia, Del. “The students enjoyed the concept of AI—as it's all around them. And they liked being able to interact with the sample chatbot,” Kulak said.

Now is the Time to Get Started

Presenting technology concepts and skills to students in middle grades is critical because by high school many students may feel it’s “too late” to explore tech as a career or topic of interest. Gaining confidence in tech skills is also critical to maintaining an interest long-term.

Fostering an interest in artificial intelligence will help to build an interest in tech and open career paths for students as they enter high school and the future job market,” Bower said. “Instilling in their interest and knowledge about AI now will begin to prepare them for careers in IT and tech fields that have yet to be created and give them a leg up on others in these fields.”

One thing a research study can’t show—the enthusiasm of students working together to create a chatbot that solves a problem.

“We have seen how excited students are to explore the content and be proud of the chatbots they created throughout the unit,” Bower said. “Some have even taken it beyond what we expected when we released the unit. It has been great to see the AI unit come to fruition and look forward to more exciting Emerging Tech units being released in the future.”

Learn more about the CompTIA Spark Tech Exploration and Emerging Tech curriculum units.