Project Profile

Engaging Rural Students in Artificial Intelligence to Develop Pathways for Innovative Computing Careers


Advances in artificial intelligence (AI) are fundamentally reshaping the workplace of the future and accelerating the demand for creating and sustaining an AI-literate workforce. This growing demand has highlighted the importance for all K-12 students to develop an understanding of AI to prepare them for future careers. Middle school years are crucial in shaping youth dispositions toward STEM. There is an urgent need nationally to develop a deep educational understanding of how to engage students during these years in learning AI and how to train and support teachers in AI education. The need to provide AI learning experiences is especially pronounced in rural areas, where students often lack access to advanced STEM educational opportunities. This project will introduce AI concepts to middle school students and teachers through summer camps, workshops, and school-based programs in rural communities of North Carolina. Over the course of the project, through co-design cycles with students and teachers, the project will iteratively develop an AI learning environment. With a focus on fostering students' creative expression, the learning environment will infuse AI learning into interactive digital game design activities that enable students to create personally meaningful and relevant game scenarios. In partnership with Boys & Girls Clubs in North Carolina, the project will offer summer camps for youth from underrepresented and underserved populations. The project will investigate which AI principles and concepts in the context of learning digital game development are most appropriate and engaging, and what are the support and scaffolding that teachers will require in integrating AI education into their instructional designs. The project is funded by the Innovative Technology Experiences for Students and Teachers (ITEST) program, which supports projects that build understandings of practices, program elements, contexts, and processes contributing to increasing students' knowledge and interest in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) and information and communication technology (ICT) careers.

The project will provide AI learning experiences to over 500 middle school students and AI-focused professional development to more than 20 teachers. Researchers will address three research questions: (1) How can we create engaging AI learning experiences for diverse rural populations of middle school students through game design activities? (2) How do we best support teachers in integrating AI learning experiences in their school-based programs? and (3) What is the impact of the learning program on diverse populations of rural middle grade students' knowledge of AI concepts, attitudes toward AI, and interest in AI careers? The project will leverage a design-based research approach to iteratively refine the program called AI Play, including the AI concepts to be addressed, the features to incorporate in the learning environment, and the scaffolding tools and pedagogical approaches to utilize. The research will use a combination of quantitative and qualitative methods such as surveys, assessments, analysis of student artifacts, focus groups, and field observations to determine how the program impacts targeted outcomes for students and teachers. The deliverables of the project will include the AI Play program model and its associated curricular materials, the professional development model and its associated materials, the AI Play community website, and the research findings from the project. The aims of the project are to build knowledge on how to best help rural students develop foundational knowledge of AI concepts, how to promote meaningful explorations of AI for rural students, and design principles for creating engaging AI learning experiences that lead to increased student interest in AI-intensive fields.

This award reflects NSF's statutory mission and has been deemed worthy of support through evaluation using the Foundation's intellectual merit and broader impacts review criteria.


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Principal Investigator(s)
Co-Principal Investigator(s)
Project Staff


Award Number
Project Duration
2022 - 2025
Developing and Testing Innovations (DTI)
North Carolina State University, Raleigh, NC
Project Work State
Target Gradespan(s)
Middle school (6-8)
Project Setting(s)
Formal Education
Informal Education
Geographic Location(s)
Project Status
Computer and informational technology science
Target Participants
Youth / students