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Broadening Minds and Horizons: Honors Meets Artificial Intelligence

During the Fall 2018 semester, Dr. Josh Smicker’s course “Automatic for the People?” implemented elements of both the academic and the practical to craft a unique experience for Catawba College Honors students. This class, offered through the Honors Program, represents the ideal collegiate experience by allowing students to learn not only about certain concepts but also see the ways these concepts are applied in the real world.

The course itself revolves around the cultural, economic, and political impacts of artificial intelligence and big data, with a focus on the direct impacts of automation on daily life. But it doesn’t stop there. “The other big component of the class—something I think is equally important—is the stories we tell about artificial intelligence. So, we look at different representations of AI, everything from Blade Runner to Black Mirror to Detroit: Become Human, that tell us how these popular representations shape our opinions of artificial intelligence,” said Smicker. This rhetorical view of AI makes the class accessible and applicable to all majors.

The complexity of course content permits the use of academic books and articles as opposed to textbooks. Although this may sound daunting, more difficult texts allow for more real-world simulations. These students have had staged debates about the different uses of AI, designed an algorithm to determine the ideal Catawba student, and have taken a number of trips that allowed for the exploration of these ideas in new and interesting settings.

“I think the framing of the Honors Program and the Honors trip is, on one hand, to provide a more in-depth experience of the course topic,” explained Smicker. He and his class have taken short-distance trips to Duke and UNC for glimpses of their science and computer programs as well as for events, roundtables, and panels on topics related to AI technology. The small class size—only six students—allows for this flexibility in terms of instruction. While these outings provide many educational benefits, they also offer an opportunity for students to connect with the Carolina academic community.

The main trip of the semester was centered in Boston, Massachusetts. Students were able to see the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and its Media Lab—ground zero for much of the employment of artificial intelligence—as well as Harvard and its archives. Students also visited museums where they were able to view the original computers and machines on which many technological discoveries were made and the artistic ways in which they are currently being used today. Additionally, this trip coincided with Boston’s annual HUBweek. Sponsored by the city, Harvard, MIT, and a few of the massive tech companies in the area, this festival, in its 2018 year, included everything from discussions on the ethics of robotics to VR booths and silent discos.

With Dr. Smicker’s ever-optimistic attitude and genuine zeal for teaching, there is little chance his Honors students will leave the Fall 2018 semester with the same mindset they had at its start. “These trips were very much about connecting more deeply with the course topic, but there is also the sense that they—and the Honors Program itself—are about preparing students for the real world. They provide a wider range of experiences and broaden cultural horizons,” he added. This course truly exemplifies the benefits reaped by those in Catawba’s Honors Program.

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