Learn History: Students Talk To Virtual WWI Kaiser

Learn History: Students Talk To Virtual WWI Kaiser
February 22, 2017

Kaiser Wilhelm II is angry and wants to go to war.


His eyes flare red when talking about his disdain for the British, and his jaw churns angrily as he voices the need for his beloved Germany to flex its muscles.


In history, Wilhelm II got his wish and helped start World War I. But in a unique setting — and using intelligence generated by machine — 10th-graders studying history at the STEM School and Academy in Highlands Ranch are trying almost daily to keep the kaiser from beginning a conflict that killed 38 million people from 1914 to 1918.


They will soon bring other major figures of the war to virtual life by using artificial-intelligence programming. Students will be able to have a dialogue with U.S. President Woodrow Wilson and Russian Czar Nicholas II and even ask them questions.


Well, not them really — just their tiny, 3-D printed talking heads.


“We will hopefully have tiny heads all over the classroom,” said Benjamin Krawciw, 16, who with 15-year-old Michal Bodzianowski led the design of the World War I project.


The students have also created a virtual-reality world that charts the rise and fall of major civilizations. Using 3-D programs and Oculus Rift virtual-reality goggles, anyone can go into a carefully detailed museum, walk through several rooms and examine exhibits.


This is the type of class that will attract those who have never before been interested in studying history, said Penelope Eucker, executive director of the STEM School and Academy, a charter school in the Douglas County School District.


“This is history that, at least in this level, has never been presented this way before,” Eucker said. “This will get kids interested.”


Getting tech-savvy students engaged in the joys of learning about history was the problem facing STEM social sciences teacher Owen Cegielski. He knew the dry, textbook approach of yesteryear probably wouldn’t grab their attention.


After all, they are students of STEM, which stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math.

World history students at STEM School Academy in Douglas County built a historical figure head of Kaiser Wilhelm compete with artificial intelligence that can speak through Google February 7, 2017.


“So I basically issued them a challenge to use technology to put some life into history,” Cegielski said. “They didn’t disappoint.”


He asked students to pick a historical figure from World War I, and using software and coding, to create an artificial-intelligence personality .


That historical figure — in this case, Kaiser Wilhelm — would have his 3-D head mounted on a Google Home Assistant, one of this year’s most popular Christmas gifts. The head, which is about 3 inches tall, has a motorized mouth and moves in sync with his AI programming.


But instead of responding to a question about the weather in Douglas County, the kaiser is programmed to respond to questions about his role in the Big War.


His head is a striking likeness to the real Wilhelm, thanks to the drawing talents of Anya Midavaine, 15, who examined portraits of the German leader to create a prototype. “Art is also part of this project,” she said.


The virtual kaiser’s responses are admittedly somewhat stilted, and his voice has little inflection. It sounds like a computer’s voice and has no German accent. The students promise that comes later.


But what it can do is answer students’ questions, debate and even reason with them because its AI is stocked with deep historical background.


The students researched both primary and secondary sources for information about the causes of WWI and its leaders, using the College Board’s AP World History Curriculum: Stearns’ “World Civilizations: The Global Experience.”


They also went to reliable websites such as the British Library’s World War I site, BBC news’ “World War One: 10 Interpretations of Who Started WWI,” the World War I Document Archive, and the Library of Congress records on the Great War, Cegielski said.


The AI, in this case Kaiser Wilhelm, can respond either in frustration, anger or be perfectly agreeable when talking about his role in history. It all depends on the question.

A second view of Kaiser Wilhelm, who uses artificial intelligence to speak through Google February 7, 2017.


“They actually were able to program temperament,” Cegielski said. “When these kids were challenged, there really was no stopping them.”


The current Wilhelm doesn’t sit on top of the Google device yet, but is attached through wiring. Benjamin and the other students want to give his face more flexibility, which would give him physical expressions.


Now, when he’s angry — which is fairly often — his eyes flash red.


“He still needs some work, and more of an ability to interact with us,” Benjamin said. “But I think we will get there.”


AI technologies are spreading further than just the classroom in Highlands Ranch. A report from Pearson Education, one of the world’s largest education companies, says existing computer systems can now provide one-on-one tutoring and facilitate and moderate group discussions.


Soon enough, software will bring almost instant feedback about a student’s progress, perhaps eliminating the need for standardized tests, the group says.


Cegielski said he wants to take some of the AI historical figures to younger students and eventually let them ask their questions.


“This could grow, and many students could interact with many historical figures,” he said.

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