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Teaching students the fundamentals of artificial intelligence

Code affects us all, yet few of us understand the computer program languages that make software, websites and apps possible. We don’t know how we would function without our smartphones, but we have very little knowledge of how they actually function.

For those of us who aren’t developers and wouldn’t know a line of code from a series of randomly generated pi numerals, there’s something inspiring – and humbling – about seeing a roomful of young students tackling the mechanics of coding with gusto.

Giving some ‘Slack’

BlueCross and the Chattanooga Technology Council (CHATECH) recently hosted our third annual five-day coding camp for Hamilton County middle and early high school students. Held July 17-21 at our corporate headquarters, the camp taught students to work in teams and develop a Slackbot (or “chatbot”), an artificial intelligence program that can simulate conversation with a human user.

 

 

“It’s important for BlueCross to give back to the community and foster the development of young minds,” says James Dean, manager, Delivery Automation Services at BlueCross, and one of the camp’s instructors. “We targeted schools that are struggling with access to technology. There are a lot of really smart, talented kids who don’t get exposed to technology in any way.

“I love that we’re able to reach out, get them involved, and hopefully ignite the spark of passion for technology.”

A total of 23 students – broken up into six teams – learned basic programming and gained hands-on experience with the aid of BlueCross developers and interns.

Coordinated coding

After a “lift-off” period on Monday, the remaining six-hour sessions alternated between training segments (where instructors provided a framework for students’ projects and access to a public code repository to work from) and teams working independently.

Coding Camp 2017 training
Students listen and write code during a training presentation.

As instructors and interns circulated, the students first determined their team roles and workloads, as well as brainstormed the primary functions of their Slackbots.

“We gave them a lot of flexibility in order to encourage collaboration,” says Stephen Hall, manager, Contact Center Applications, and another of the camp’s instructors. “There were seven or eight distinct responsibilities that needed to be coordinated to get their Slackbots up and running. If they didn’t coordinate, they would experience the pain of code merges and the nightmare of changing a line of code simultaneously.

“It’s not about the code, it’s about the teamwork.”

This teamwork yielded some creative results:

  • Team Insert Name Here produced Penny the Holiday Bot, who could only answer specific questions about holidays. (“We wanted it to perform one function really well, rather than a bunch of functions maybe not so well,” according to one student on the team.)
  • Team Flossy Carter (we had to Google that one; it’s the name of a prominent tech reviewer on YouTube) created Margarine (pronounced “Mar-jar-een”), who had the personality of a confused grandmother. (When asked “How old are you?” it would respond “Old enough to give you a spankin’!”)
  • Team The Mysterious Magic 8-ball and their 8-ball Bot could – you guessed it – replicate the functionality of a Magic 8-ball toy. (For the most part.)
Cosing Camp 2017 Slackbot presentation
Team “The Mysterious Magic 8-Ball” demonstrates its Slackbot’s functions for parents and the judges panel.

“This was a new experience for me; I really didn’t know anything about [coding],” says Cortney Nelson, a member of the Magic 8-ball team and a rising 10th grader at Brainerd High School. “It was pretty cool; I learned a lot of new stuff. It [took] a team effort to achieve something.”

And the winner is…

The camp culminated in a chatbot presentation and awards ceremony, where teams showed off the fruits of their labors for parents and panel of judges from information services leadership at BlueCross. The panel engaged each Slackbot in one-on-one conversations. They then posed questions to team members as a group and individually and assessed their Slackbots on:

  • Concept
  • Technical quality of code
  • Functionality
  • Overall execution

First place went to Team Say Something and their Slackbot Wilbert, who could determine – and then show – judges’ individual birthstones based on a series of questions.

 

Coding Camp 2017 winning team
Team “Say Something,” first place winners at the 2017 coding camp, included (from left) Nicholas Turritto (Ooltewah High), Gabriel Turritto (Hunter Middle), Bella Blankenbaker (Chattanooga School for the Arts and Sciences) and John Paul Freeman (Chattanooga School for the Liberal Arts).

Bella Blankenbaker, a rising eighth grader at Chattanooga School for the Arts and Sciences and presenter on the winning team, heard about the camp from her science teacher and immediately applied. Over the course of a week, she learned a lot about teamwork.

“In coding, you have to communicate about everything you’re doing and not interfere with what your teammates are doing,” she says.

“The most important takeaway was to always check your work and be very consistent in what you do, but also have the confidence that you’re doing it right.”

The coding continues

At the end of the week, all students were presented with a flash drive and the week’s slide deck in the hopes that they would continue their programming journey from home.

“We provided what they need to keep going,” James says.

“I just hope they keep working with code, keep building on it, keep making new things, and coming up with new ways to learn and grow.”

Adds Stephen, “I hope that every single one of them becomes so addicted to code and what it can do that we see them all again in seven, eight or nine years with college degrees and applying for internships here.”

About Jesse Thompson, Principal Communications Specialist

A photo of the authorJesse joined the BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee corporate communications team in 2017. A Chattanooga native, he has more than 15 years’ experience in content creation, management, and strategy for consumer audiences, including a six-year stint in health care marketing.

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