Tech School students bringing them to virtual life

‘Creative thinking plus cloud technology is a powerful combination.’

‘Hey there! How can I help you?’ You might have seen a message like this pop up in a window in the corner of your screen while browsing the internet. While it might appear as though a person is responding to your query, it’s actually a chatbot — a type of ‘conversational interface’ driven by artificial intelligence.

Soon, the Banyule-Nillumbik and Whittlesea Tech Schools’ websites will have their very own chatbots, thanks to students from 11 secondary schools in Melbourne’s north. Over two days in August at Melbourne Polytechnic campuses, the students brought their Tech School chatbots to virtual life.

On the first day, students learnt the ins and outs of chatbots, including ethics, what they can do and how they can go wrong.

On the second day, in pairs, the students were charged with building their chatbot and training it to answer questions about the Tech Schools. They also gave their creation a name and personality. 

The program was led by education technology strategist Richard Heaton and cloud solutions architect Bec Lyons from Microsoft — an industry partner of the two Tech Schools. A bit of friendly competition didn’t hurt either — the best chatbot would grace the Tech Schools’ website.

One bot, called Cynicolphet (an anagram of ‘polytechnic’), was given a posh disposition. Its pop-up window addressed website visitors with a jaunty ‘good day to you!’ Another, called Bazbot, was instilled with a bit of an ocker persona. ‘G’day!’, it greeted.

Lucinda Derrett, a student from Viewbank College and one of Bazbot’s creators, says she has always been interested in the natural sciences — biology, chemistry, physics.
But after completing a computer science elective, which she took to fill a space in her timetable, she uncovered a passion for coding. The chatbot program added to that newfound interest and she now plans to enrol in computing in VCE.

Marc Blanks, Executive Director of the Banyule-Nillumbik and Whittlesea Tech Schools, said it was ‘just fantastic’ to watch the students work: ‘Our young people have so many talents and when they have opportunities like this to solve real problems with industry, they can really shine.’

The Banyule-Nillumbik and Whittlesea Tech Schools, based at Melbourne Polytechnic’s Greensborough and Epping campuses respectively, are two of 10 Tech Schools being established across the state under the $128 million Education State initiative.

These shared high-tech hubs offer innovative, hands-on learning programs focused on science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) and developed with industry partners. Students enrolled in partner secondary schools solve real-world problems using the latest technology and design thinking.

The Banyule-Nillumbik Tech School’s ceremonial turning of the sod took place on 17 August, as did Whittlesea Tech School’s on 14 September. Both will be operational in mid-2018.

Meanwhile, the winning chatbot — Baz — will be merged with the best parts of the other chatbots and be incorporated into the Banyule-Nillumbik and Whittlesea Tech School website.

‘You look at the diversity of the chatbots and think, ‘wow, these kids designed and created them from scratch — even before the Tech Schools are built’,’ Mr Heaton says.
‘Creative thinking plus cloud technology is a powerful combination.’

For more news about Tech Schools, see:

Tech Schools of tomorrow here today
What is design thinking?
Marita Cheng, Tech Schools Ambassador

For more information about Tech Schools, see: Tech Schools