Five years since ideation, here’s how Drake University’s AI major is progressing

By Christopher Porter, director of the Artificial Intelligence Program at Drake University

In the summer of 2019, a group of Drake faculty from across campus, including those with expertise in mathematics, computer science, statistics, information systems, education, philosophy, law and English, gathered together to lay out a blueprint for a new artificial intelligence major at Drake. 

This endeavor came at the behest of Drake president Marty Martin, who recently attended a presentation by Northeastern University president Joseph Aoun, in which he discussed the main idea behind his then-recent book, “Robot-Proof: Higher Education in the Age of Artificial Intelligence.” 

Aoun’s main contention in his book is that in order to be ready for professional lives that would be continually disrupted by technological change, students need to be equipped with a broad range of literacies, not just data literacy and technological literacy, but also what Aoun calls human literacy, which is informed by the humanities, communication and design. Taken together, these three literacies ensure that students are adept at critical thinking, systems thinking, entrepreneurship and cultural agility, each skill necessary to be flexible, adaptive and ready to navigate an increasingly AI-infused world.

Led by Martin Roth, a philosopher of mind, and Alanah Mitchell, a specialist in information systems and communication technologies for collaboration, the group of Drake faculty hammered out a curricular model instantiating Aoun’s prescription. They crafted an AI major that would build on a computational and statistical core of classes with classes in psychology, neuroscience, philosophy, digital ethics, law, design, literature and linguistics.

In establishing the AI major, the committee also consulted local industry partners, following an earlier precedent established by the group of faculty that designed Drake’s data analytics major. Two main takeaways from these conversations were that local employees were enthusiastic about a model that prepared well-rounded and adaptive students, but some questioned whether we needed a separate major that was distinct from our data analytics major, which already required coursework in machine learning. Still, the committee was undeterred in fleshing out a major that fit the “Robot-Proof” mold.

Alimoor Reza, a professor of computer science, talks with Drake students. Photo by Duane Tinkey

After Drake’s board of trustees officially approved the major, as well as an accompanying minor, early in the spring of 2020, the new major officially rolled out in the fall of 2020 during the thick of the COVID-19 pandemic, a rather inauspicious start. Despite the early challenges of introducing our curriculum in a purely online format, enrollment in the major and minor exceeded baseline projects. By the end of the second full year of the program in mid-2022, there were 29 AI majors, nearly triple the amount in the business model projections for the program as originally presented to the board of trustees.

Near the end of 2022, with the AI major well into its third year, ChatGPT was released to the public, bringing an instance of the very upheaval that Aoun described as the raison d’etre of developing robot-proof students. 

One of the broader learning objectives of the AI major is that students would “respond to ethical, societal, organizational, legal, political, and cultural implications of artificial intelligence.” With the release of ChatGPT, and, in particular, its ability to provide human-like responses to prompts across a potentially unlimited range of topics and domains, new questions about these various implications were immediately raised. Given the makeup of the AI major, it was straightforward for Drake students and faculty associated with the AI program to pivot to discussing these implications. Even in the spring of 2023, Drake hosted panels of faculty experts to discuss the impacts of generative AI in a host of disciplines, including marketing, design, computer graphics and linguistics, as well as implications in philosophy and culture.

But it wasn’t enough merely to talk about generative AI. By the time ChatGPT was released in 2022, Drake had already incorporated early aspects of generative AI into some of our AI curriculum (particularly, AI image generation tools such as DALL-E 2), but the widespread availability of conversational AI tools like ChatGPT required some serious rethinking of both the content and teaching methods of our classes. 

In response to this demand, Eric Manley, a computer science faculty member, put together a course on natural language processing for the fall of 2023, providing students with an opportunity to work directly with transformers, the underlying machine learning architecture that powers large language models, and teaching the students to fine-tune their own models for various purposes. 

This semester (at least at the time of writing), the first crop of graduating seniors who entered Drake specifically to major in AI are completing projects involving generative AI, including tools for visualizing AI-powered image generation, designing an interactive game using generative AI, analyzing a technique called data poisoning that can be used to corrupt large language models, and highlighting the ethical and legal implications of facial recognition technology.

The work of updating Drake’s AI program to meet constantly evolving industry standards is certainly not complete, and it will likely remain a work in progress as long as new developments continue at their current pace. One thing that is clear, however, is that the committee that crafted the AI major made the right bet in 2019 to move ahead with the program, which now plays an important role in producing robot-proof students who can not only meet the challenges raised by the rise of generative AI but can leverage these new tools to great effect.