How Educators Can Leverage Generative AI To Promote Student Innovation

It’s back-to-school season, and educators are buried under the weight of anxiety over the ethical minefield that is artificial intelligence. Concerns about cheating, wrong responses and academic laziness are causing a kind of AI paralysis. While the apprehensions are understandable, the fixation on potential downsides is leading educational institutions to overlook an arsenal of transformative tools that AI brings to the table. From fostering creativity to breaking down complex problems, generative AI is emerging as an unassuming but potent Swiss Army knife in the modern academic toolbox. Let’s delve in and explore how these generative AI tools, such as ChatGPT, Bard, Bing, Claude and others, can help us tackle complex problem-solving, revolutionizing interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary education.

In an age defined by complexity and challenge, we are faced with a Rubik’s Cube of predicaments that refuse to be solved via traditional means: poverty, inequality, global health crises, climate change and political extremism are all tough puzzle pieces of the world we live in. We need fresh tactics to navigate the labyrinth of these issues, and I have a contender for you: a blend of interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary approaches, enhanced by the technological prodigy, generative AI.

Interdisciplinarity is a bit like an academic cocktail party; it mixes theories, concepts and methodologies from various fields into innovative frameworks. It’s this cocktail of ideas that leads to breakthrough thinking. Then there’s transdisciplinarity, the trailblazer that blurs disciplinary boundaries and fosters the co-creation of new knowledge, turning our cocktail party into a think-tank.

In November of 2022, ChatGPT and, soon after, other generative AI tools stepped onto the academic stage, creating new opportunities for us to enhance interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary learning. As higher education cultivates the next generation of complex problem-solvers, generative AI tools can serve as novel teaching assistants, illuminating the benefits of harnessing technology for our interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary pursuits.

Providing Access To Vast Knowledge

Generative AI tools empower students with real-time access to a vast knowledge database spanning numerous academic disciplines. These AI tools skillfully synthesize information from diverse fields, transforming a jungle of complex ideas into accessible, bite-sized morsels of understanding, though requiring fact-checking as needed. For example, imagine a group of environmental science and economics students working on a project about the true cost of carbon emissions. A generative AI tool such as ChatGPT could serve as the group’s interdisciplinary library, offering insights on climate models, carbon tax theories and the socioeconomic impacts of pollution. The students could navigate this complex topic more easily with AI summarizing pertinent articles and answering their questions in real-time.

Sparking Creativity

The ability of, for example, Claude to spark creativity is a game-changer. In brainstorming sessions, it acts as a collaborative muse, ushering students to explore myriad viewpoints and concoct solutions that transcend disciplinary boundaries. It engenders an atmosphere of open-mindedness, prompting students to think beyond the proverbial box and challenge the status quo. For example, consider a team of architecture and computer science students exploring smart city designs. Claude could suggest they explore urban psychology theories. Inspired, they conceptualize a city plan that adapts in real-time to human behavior.

Improving Communications

In the world of trans- and interdisciplinary work, effective communication is not just a nice-to-have, but a make-or-break. Here, generative AI shines as a communication coach, helping students articulate their ideas more coherently and fostering a deeper understanding within their teams. It’s like having a Grammarly with a Ph.D. For example, envision a healthcare policy course, where public health majors collaborate with law students to draft a legislative proposal. Generative AI such as Bing could help bridge the terminology gap, explaining legalese in public health terms and vice versa. The platform could ensure that both groups of students can contribute meaningfully to the project, breaking down language barriers that could otherwise lead to misunderstandings.

Enhancing Critical Thinking

ChatGPT, especially the paid version with access to advanced data analytics and plugins such as Wolfram Alpha, also earns its stripes as an analytical powerhouse. It dissects complex problems, suggesting interdisciplinary connections that even seasoned academics might overlook. It prompts students to ask novel questions, expanding their understanding of the issues at hand and enhancing students’ critical thinking. For example, consider history and artificial intelligence students working together on a project to model historical outcomes based on different variables. ChatGPT could help them identify overlooked correlations, such as the relation between economic systems and historical contexts. It could suggest that they model this relation through machine learning algorithms. Insights such as these could guide the students’ research in entirely new directions.

Helping Critical Evaluation

Moreover, generative AI tools can assist in evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of various approaches in the students’ work. They can assess and identify knowledge gaps and offer guidance on how to bridge these via further investigations. For example, if sociology and data science students were investigating the impact of social media on elections, a generative AI tool such as Bard could act as an advisor, pointing out that their project lacks a cybersecurity angle to fully grasp the topic. It could suggest relevant cybersecurity areas to explore further, thereby enhancing the depth and scope of their work.

Generative AI tools encourage students to continually refine their approaches to problem-solving, building a robust arsenal of interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary problem-solving skills. These tools equip students not just academically, but with skills that have real-world applications—human-technology teamwork, creativity, communication and critical thinking.

In essence, generative AI tools are an invaluable sidekick for students grappling with complex issues, offering multifaceted support in understanding, analyzing and resolving interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary challenges.

The growing prominence of AI in our societal discourse places ChatGPT and its generative AI cousins at the forefront of our consideration: Should we use them or not? Contrary to Pew Research’s finding of “growing public concern about the role of artificial intelligence in daily life,” I believe that in higher education, we have a responsibility to understand and harness the full potential of these tools. They can revolutionize how students learn, how teachers teach and how we solve complex, real-world problems.

Our graduates will architect the world’s future, and we have an obligation to educate them for a reality where AI is a common collaborator. The ability to collaborate with AI will make the students more competitive in the workforce and enable them to make significant contributions to society from the moment they graduate.

This new school year, the world is at a new frontier and it is up to the instructors to seize this moment and guide students on how to navigate the AI landscape. Ready or not, they will use the technology. They are already using generative AI and not always in the most ethical ways. Maybe if we invite them to the table to help us lead the way forward, the future will be brighter for all.

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