Charting Tomorrow: Lewis & Clark’s AI Odyssey

Lewis & Clark embraces the challenges and opportunities of the artificial intelligence revolution.

In the heart of the Pacific Northwest, nestled among the scenic landscapes of Oregon, Lewis & Clark has long been a beacon of academic innovation, pushing the boundaries of education to prepare its students for the challenges of tomorrow. As the world rapidly advances into the age of artificial intelligence (AI), Lewis & Clark is not merely keeping pace; it’s boldly adapting to the technology, reshaping the academic experience, and positioning its students to lead in the AI-driven future.

AI generated that paragraph. Sure, it’s hyperbolic and generic, but it serves its purpose, even as it raises the question of whether using AI to kickstart this article was a clever choice or a shortcut. This is the type of question Lewis & Clark students, faculty, and staff—and all of us—are grappling with as we confront the challenges and opportunities presented by the rapid emergence of artificial intelligence.

“We cannot afford to overlook AI,” says Chrys Hutchings, managing director of the Bates Center for Entrepreneurship and Leadership. “It’s already reshaping industries from health care and finance to the arts and engineering. At Lewis & Clark, every program, every class, has to be ready for AI.”

We cannot afford to overlook AI. It’s already reshaping industries from health care and finance to the arts and engineering. At Lewis & Clark, every program, every class, has to be ready for AI.”

Chrys Hutchings, Managing Director of the Bates Center for Entrepreneurship and Leadership

Lewis & Clark faculty, like those at colleges worldwide, are striving to keep pace with the rapidly evolving technology. Along the way, they’re pondering essential questions like: How can AI amplify our work? How can it streamline tasks, freeing us to focus on higher-level thinking and creativity? Are our jobs in jeopardy, or does AI open up possibilities for reinvention and expansion? What role does a liberal arts education play in the age of AI?

Lewis & Clark faculty are learning along with their students, exploring the impact of AI in their fields, and adapting their teaching methods to encourage critical engagement with the technology.

AI in Academia

As a versatile tool fraught with both immense potential and uncharted ethical complexities, AI is a fitting subject for academic exploration at Lewis&Clark, says Miranda CarneyMorris, director of educational technology. And, as we are only beginning to wrap our brains around its capabilities, much less harness its power, “we want our community to understand its use.” The alternative is that we expose ourselves to potential risks and repercussions, she says, like two New York lawyers who were recently sanctioned for using AI to write a legal brief that included “hallucinated” (the AI term for “fake”) court cases.

While the college doesn’t dictate how—or how much— faculty should involve AI in their courses, it provides learning opportunities at the departmental and institutional levels. Each semester, for example, the IT office holds a Faculty Technology Institute to help faculty integrate technology into their teaching and research. The spring 2023 institute revolved around the question, “What do AI tools mean for our work?” It included discussions sparked by prompts like: Are chatbots good for non-native speakers? Is using chatbots to generate ideas cheating? Through such events, L&C encourages faculty to experiment with AI tools, deliberate on issues like plagiarism and academic integrity, create sample syllabus language, and collaborate on integrating AI into assignments across disciplines.

Many faculty members are rising to the challenge.

In English classes, students critique and revise drafts of papers composed by ChatGPT to hone their editing skills. In counseling courses at the graduate school, aspiring therapists assess whether AI tools can simulate client interactions in various scenarios. In data science classes, students use AI to troubleshoot code and complete tasks like basic coding.

Lewis & Clark is also currently developing new classes on the cutting edge of data science, including a data visualization course to enhance students’ skills in presenting data effectively; a course exploring written communication from a data journalism perspective; and an AI and machine learning course that will delve into topics like equity and algorithms in data related to social issues like mass incarceration. Additional courses will include AI for Creatives, in which students will learn design principles, techniques, and data synthesis to deliver custom visualizations for an external client, and AI for Businesses and Nonprofits, a hands-on course that will provide students with a toolkit of AI technologies to deploy when launching and scaling their ventures, or for providing value to an employer.

“I see incredible potential for how AI can revolutionize the original research our students can produce,” says Ellen Seljan, professor of political science. She points to a recent project in which she and her students explored the impact of automatic voter registration on voter turnout in Oregon. With large data files lacking information like race or gender, AI algorithms can predict these variables from a probability standpoint, allowing researchers to gain insights into aspects of data that were previously inaccessible.

The arts are another area grappling with the impact of AI. Staff and students at the Digital Media Lab undertake pilot projects to understand the potential of emerging technologies for integration at Lewis & Clark. In 2023, the IT office built a supercharged desktop computer, capable of running AI programs locally rather than through cloud apps or web services. Daniel Disciglio, visiting professor of art and digital media, has been experimenting with ChatGPT and Dall-E along with his students; for example, he used ChatGPT to generate instructions for recreating real artworks, which the students then followed. “AI is a game-changer in creative fields,” he says. “We’re just getting the tip of the iceberg of what AI can accomplish.”

Disciglio goes on to note that artists can use AI tools to explore novel concepts they might not have encountered through traditional means. Collaborative efforts between artists and AI systems can result in hybrid artworks that blend human creativity with machine-generated elements, paving the way for innovative artistic experimentation. Artists no longer need specialized, high-end equipment to engage with AI-driven creativity, and this democratization of technology empowers a broader range of artists to incorporate AI into their creative processes, Disciglio says.

Like any other tool, AI relies on the expertise of the person wielding it—their understanding of which tasks are best suited for its use and how to apply it within their area of interest, whether that be art, data analysis, marketing, or research. The only way to gain proficiency in AI is to practice with it, says Seljan, who along with her colleagues is eager to engage students in projects that will lead to advancements in their fields.

“We want students to partner with us on creating the systems that will support the questions they, and our faculty, want answered,” says IT’s Miranda Carney-Morris. “The future holds exciting opportunities for those who are curious and willing to dive deep into emerging technologies.”

While the college doesn’t dictate how—or how much— faculty should involve AI in their courses, it provides learning opportunities at the departmental and institutional levels.

Trust, Then Verify

Despite numerous studies highlighting bias in AI algorithms, some users continue to trust the content unquestionably, assuming that since it’s generated by a machine, it must be impartial, Seljan says. For instance, many social media platforms use AI to curate content for their users’ news feeds, with algorithms designed to show users content that aligns with their preferences. Over time, AI tends to prioritize sensationalist and polarizing content, as it generates higher user engagement, inadvertently amplifying extremist content, misinformation, and hate speech. This is how users become entrenched in echo chambers, exposed only to information that reinforces their existing beliefs. Seljan points out that accepting algorithmically curated content at face value, even when it may be misleading or harmful, undermines users’ critical judgment.

“AI can be a great tool, as long as you don’t just trust it without verification,” says Seljan, who notes that identifying and addressing this bias is fundamental to a liberal arts education. She encourages students to use the technology to assist with coding, for example, but they must comprehend the code before integrating it into their work. Jeff Christensen, associate professor of counseling in the Lewis & Clark Graduate School of Education and Counseling, stresses the necessity of recognizing potential errors in automated content, such as references that appear legitimate but are, upon closer scrutiny, nonexistent.

“It’s up to us to steer AI in the right direction,” says Seljan’s former student Madeleine MacWilliamson BA ’24. “We’re seeing people being harmed by these new technologies that are not yet well regulated–like Tesla’s self-driving cars, which have caused so many fatal accidents that the company had to make legal modifications. It’s important to stay knowledgeable about emerging technologies so we can create safeguard policies to protect the public.”

Ethics in the AI Mix

AI presents fresh ethical challenges, like spotting plagiarism facilitated by chatbots and addressing potential biases in algorithms. In the arts, for instance, AI “has a lot of possibilities to catalyze creative processes, but there’s a question of authorship,” says Disciglio, who begins his digital arts class by exploring how photography became an art form in its own right and how it influenced painters, leading to new forms like Impressionism.

“We think about how AI will not only become a tool for making artworks, but how it will influence other mediums,” Disciglio says. “Some of the image generators are very spectacular. You can produce an image that looks as if it was painted by Picasso from your home, for free, in seconds.” As AI systems autonomously generate content, determining the true originator of an artwork becomes challenging, sparking debates about the rightful creator of the art. When is a Picasso not a Picasso?

And when is a student paper not a student paper? When the student asks ChatGPT to provide an outline? When ChatGPT points out weaknesses in an argument, or rewrites a rough draft? To address these concerns, faculty are rethinking how they ask students to engage with their class material. Christensen is “relying less on papers as a model for demonstrating students’ knowledge of a subject,” for instance, and introducing more modes of communication, like asking students to complete a “show your work” component of writing a paper, where they detail their process.

By offering classes that embrace the technology along with its myriad possibilities and challenges, Lewis & Clark is augmenting its liberal arts education with the technical skills and ethical awareness to harness AI for positive change, Seljan says. “Our students come here with the intention to be public servants, with goodwill and great ideas. I’m really excited about what they can do after graduation.” MacWilliamson adds: “I wish people weren’t scared of AI, because once you understand it, it’s easier to use for good. It’s here, so the only thing we can do is learn about it and figure out how to best use it.”

And for anyone worried about losing their job to a robot, Hutchings is optimistic: “When computers first emerged, there were fears of massive job losses. It was the same with the transition from horse buggies to automobiles.” History has shown that technology often creates more jobs than it replaces, she says, and the best way to avoid losing our jobs to AI is to learn how to use it effectively. “At the end of the day, the liberal arts remain more valuable than ever before because what it trains best is what AI can’t do: collaborate with and manage people, and communicate a story,” Hutchings says. “It can write a long missive about the importance of exercise, endorphins, and nutrition, but for the brilliance of ‘Just Do It’ or ‘Got Milk?’ you need the creativity, discernment, and strategic planning of the liberal arts.”

Looking Ahead: Charting the AI Path

Education is by nature dynamic, but the relentless pace of change due to AI’s rapid advancement is exceptional. As we stand on the cusp of an AI-driven era akin to the early days of the internet, how will we continue to evolve? “AI is going to be everywhere,” Carney-Morris says. Like the railroad, the printing press, and the internet, “AI technology will be truly transformative; it’s already changing everything.”

We’re challenged to keep pace with AI’s rapid evolution, even as it presents a moving target. Keeping pace with technology that’s advancing at breakneck speed can feel like an almost insurmountable task, but Lewis & Clark is striving to stay ahead of the curve.

“I will be in the second class to graduate with a data science minor, and I’m really excited to see how data science evolves at Lewis & Clark because it epitomizes the liberal arts values” at the heart of the college, MacWilliamson says. While the college forges ahead, its community remains firmly grounded in its commitment to individuals and meaningful human connections. As Seljan says: “Human relationships are front and center at Lewis & Clark. These students are growing and developing, and they need to learn from people, from peers and professors. Those bonds are the core of the educational experience,” and that’s not changing anytime soon.