Newswise — The rumor flying around Ware Shoals Middle School was that an ice cream truck would be selling treats for $1 when students gathered for field day a few days before the end of the academic year.

Students trade rumors all the time, but this one was different. It was planted by teachers and Clemson University researchers as part of a lesson on how misinformation spreads on the internet.

Reality was better than the rumor. An ice cream truck did show up, but treats were free, making for a sweet end to the first year of an innovative program.

The students who lined up at the window of The Ice Cream Xperience were the first to finish a set of educational modules developed by an interdisciplinary group of Clemson researchers and two teachers from Ware Shoals Middle.

The goal was to teach artificial intelligence, cybersecurity and math to students whose lives are interwoven with the internet more than any previous generation.

Researchers said the program’s first year was a big hit. It’s expected back next year, and the team is working on a new set of modules to expand the program, they said. The goal is to eventually make the modules widely available at Ware Shoals Middle and beyond.

“It went really, really well,” Ware Shoals Middle math teacher Lee-Ann Livingston said. “We can teach students anything, but it sinks in when it’s something that affects them.”

The modules that students took in the first year covered a range of topics, including chatbots, ads and personalization, viral social media posts and misinformation.

Rising high school freshman Aubrey Jackson said the chatbot module is what she remembers most.

“We were asked a question, and it wasn’t a real person talking to you,” said Jackson, an aspiring eighth-grade math teacher. “It was their own bot that they created, and we got to create ours. It was fun.”

The Clemson researchers on the project are Nicole Bannister, an associate professor in the College of Education; and Bart Knijnenburg and Kelly Caine, both associate professors of human-centered computing. Those from Ware Shoals Middle are Livingston and Kirsten Mobley, who teaches fundamentals of computing.

The teachers have not only been guiding students through the modules but also helping develop them, meeting as part of the research team twice a week.

“Teachers have been an integral part of this project,” Bannister said. “We’re doing things that aren’t being done anywhere in the world.”

The National Science Foundation is funding the project, with Bannister serving as principal investigator.

Knijnenburg said the modules help teach how algorithms work and their potential consequences.

“This project is moving along quite nicely,” he said. “We will continue to work with Ware Shoals Middle in the upcoming school year but would love to expand to other schools to make these modules available to a larger circle of students. It would be great to hear from teachers at other schools who are interested in using these modules.”

Three modules were taught to more than 270 students in fifth through eighth grades during the 2021-22 academic year. About 65 students in the eighth grade only also took a fourth module.

Ware Shoals Middle is in Ware Shoals, a South Carolina town of about 2,500, set at the intersection of three counties in a rural area that Principal Jeneen Webb called “a little slice of heaven.”

The ice-cream rumor started spreading when some of the eighth grade students received an email with a link to a website that looked legitimate at first glance. The top contained the school’s official logo and a carousel of student photos, but eagle-eyed recipients would have noticed something wasn’t quite right.

A message supposedly from Webb contained misspellings. The message read: “I’m excited to announce that on May 27 at 1:30 PM, ALL graduating 8th grade students at Warre Shoals Middle School will recieve an ice cream for $1 from The Ice Cream Xperience Ice Cream Truck.”

The website included headshots of Mobley and Livingston, but the space below for their messages was filled with gobbledygook.

Livingston said she challenged students to prove the email was legitimate.

“They started realizing some of the information was written in another language, and it came from an unsecure website,” she said. “They started picking up that it was a fake.”

This discussion happened in parallel with a math lesson about proving geometric relationships, Bannister said.

The goal was to support students, helping them learn to connect justifying math ideas with debunking misinformation through the lens of evidence, she said. In doing so, Livingston prepared students for the ultimate “a-ha” moment the following day, Bannister said.

It all came together on the Friday afternoon before Memorial Day, when the ice cream truck rounded the corner into the parking lot, its cheerful music sailing across the basketball court, beckoning students to its side.

Students took turns accepting their free treats and started slurping them up before the blazing sun could take them away.

Evidence of the truth “IRL” could be seen not on a screen but in the smiles on their faces, the trickles of popsicle juice running down their fingers and the dollars still in their pockets.

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