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AI Science Tutors – Should They Be Trusted?

11/01/2024 / Science Tuition

It’s amazing how rapidly technology can change our lives – and there’s no better example of this than AI. Just a few years ago, AI was something few of us had access to or thought about often. Now it’s everywhere. When we’re shopping online, we encounter it in customer service chatbots. In school, teachers check essays for signs they were written by ChatGPT rather than students. And AI’s hard at work behind the scenes in many organisations too.

Given this rise of AI in all parts of our lives, it’s understandable why some people wonder whether they can use an AI science tutor to help them learn concepts in primary or secondary science.

However, while AI is useful sometimes, it’s important for us to remember that it is not infallible, and nor is it equally useful in all cases. AI might be ready to take on the task of science tutoring one day, but it’s not ready yet. Read on to see five crucial reasons why.

1. An AI is only as reliable as the data that’s put into it

Since AIs rely purely on what the data input into them, they have no ability to make judgments about whether this information is accurate or not, or whether it’s omitting important details. That means that with an AI, a tiny typo in the data it’s relying on, like the relative charge of an electron being written as 1 instead of -1, becomes its total truth. In other words, with AI there’s always a worry that some little error in the input data has errors and that you’re being taught something that’s not right.

That’s even more worrying if a science tutor AI is relying on scientific information from the web, which already is at risk of containing errors. AIs don’t necessarily have the ability to tell the difference between a reliable source and a dubious one. And even when AIs are making extremely incorrect assertions, they will make them with total confidence, so it’s easy to believe them.

This is called the problem of data quality, and some have identified it as the single greatest pitfall that AI faces.

2. An AI can make its own mistakes even if the data is given to it is all correct

Did you know that AI can “hallucinate”?

Yes, that’s right. ChatGPT has been known to simply make up answers with no sources at all.

It’s also been known to make other errors like mathematical mistakes and getting confused with units.

Again, a human science tutor has the gift of common sense and can easily spot when a piece of information or an answer just isn’t plausible or even possible. AI doesn’t (currently) have that ability, and it can blend its false information with real information seamlessly, so you just can’t trust that what it’s telling you is true.

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3. AI isn’t great at understanding questions your child might ask

Sometimes when a child doesn’t understand a scientific concept, they may have difficulty even forming their question about it in a way that uses the right words. A human tutor has the ability to listen to a slightly confusing question about the “way of eating of a plant” and understand that what the child is trying to ask about is photosynthesis – how a plant fuels itself through what the child sees as “eating” light. An AI science tutor might hear the same question and think that the child is asking about how plants are digested by animals.

Many people who work with AI will tell you that learning how to phrase questions in a way that the AI understands is a skill in itself. But when a child is trying to learn science, they don’t need to spend their energy on learning the additional skill of talking to an AI too. A human science tutor allows a student to focus 100% of their efforts where they should be – on science.

4. AI doesn’t know how to adapt its tuition to work best for a particular child

One of the most important benefits of one-on-one science tutoring – perhaps the most important benefit of all – is that you get tuition exactly tailored to your child. That means it’s based not only on your child’s current science skills, vocabulary and knowledge, but also to their learning style, personality and even interests.

If you have a child who struggles a little with science vocab, a human tutor will explain topics in a way that reinforces vocabulary words while making the concept clear using words the child already knows. If your child likes to look at visuals while learning, a human tutor will try to create sketches or diagrams. Some children need extra encouragement and praise with each lesson, while others don’t.

Additionally, every tutor knows that finding a way to connect a topic to a child’s interests or hobbies is a fantastic way to ignite their enjoyment of a subject. Maybe a child who really loves talking about their pet dog would like a lesson on genetics that uses heredity in dogs as an example.

A science tutor AI just doesn’t have this capacity. Even if you have the option of asking it to provide an answer at a “Year 6 level,” and the AI is capable of doing that successfully, the answer won’t necessarily be at your child’s comprehension level. And it goes without saying that an AI science tutor isn’t capable of subtly adapting its answers to your child’s unique learning style and personality.

5. An AI science tutor doesn’t have the teaching or pedagogical skills of a human

 A good science tutor requires many things, but two of the major ones are:

  1. Subject matter knowledge – knowledge about science
  2. Teaching skills – the ability to craft lessons and convey learning effectively

This is one reason why hiring a local university student to tutor your child isn’t the best option either. Knowing a topic doesn’t necessarily make a person good at explaining it to someone else.

Likewise, a science tutor AI available at the moment is likely based on datasets of scientific knowledge. It’s also possible that the AI has been fed data about teaching concepts. But knowing concepts about teaching doesn’t mean that you have teaching skills.

For example, some adaptive learning software can use information about what questions a child is getting correct in order to generate further questions. If a child does well on respiration, for instance, the software moves to the next topic. Likewise, if a child is struggling with diffusion, the software offers a further foundational lesson on diffusion.

But this is a simplistic way of approaching the issue. The software doesn’t know why a child is succeeding in one topic and not in others, and it can’t tell whether a child is feeling an enjoyable level of challenge or whether the topic is too easy or overwhelming.

Diagnosing why a child is stuck on a topic is a crucial part of tutoring, but it’s a subtle task. AI just can’t do this in the way that a human can.

Software can’t get a sense of a child’s way of thinking and then present information in a different way – for example, if words aren’t helping in a diagram. It can’t tell whether a student actually knows the material but got the questions wrong because they’re having a bad day or got distracted by noise outside. It can’t recognise that the student can’t grasp this topic because they are misunderstanding a topic from a previous year that this topic is based on.

An AI science tutor also can’t have a conversation with a child and get a sense of how the child feels and talks about different concepts – the child’s tone of voice, their facial expressions, their confidence. Perhaps the child does understand the core ideas of a topic, but they’re struggling to write their answers in a way that reflects their knowledge – so we have a problem with writing or test-taking rather than with understanding.

All of these things are things that a good human science tutor can do quite easily.

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Every student’s time is precious. Time they devote to tutoring is time lost from other schoolwork, hobbies or just from having fun and making good memories. That’s why spending time on “tutoring” with an AI just isn’t worth it. You can’t trust a science tutor AI to provide enough learning to justify this time and effort. Even worse, working with an AI science tutor means that you always have to question whether the information you’re getting is accurate.

At Principal Tutors, you can start each tutoring session with 100% confidence that your children are getting education from a fully qualified teacher who has expertise in the UK curriculum. They’re getting the tailored, skilled tuition they expect and need.

What’s more, we pride ourselves on our student-tutor matching. We make sure your child is getting the tutor they need to fit their personality, learning style and more.

Curious to know more about how online science tuition works with us, or how our tutors can help boost your child’s achievement in science? Just call our expert team on 0800 772 0974, and we’ll be happy to chat with you or start getting you matched to a tutor. If you prefer, you can also use our online form to get started.


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