Given the undoubtable impact that AI will have on scientific professions, it is imperative that both educators and students learn how to use AI and how to use it wisely.

Does your classroom provide a welcoming presence for AI tools or have you strategically barred the doors, battened the hatches and constructed a moat to prevent an AI-based infiltration? While faculty views on this topic vary widely, students are increasingly embracing its use. Given the undoubtable impact that AI will have on scientific professions, it is imperative that both educators and students learn how to use AI and how to use it wisely. Most workforce experts agree that employees who can easily incorporate AI into a wide variety of their professional responsibilities will attain a significant advantage in their career progression.

The educational goals are not only to prepare students for their future careers, but also to ensure that they have attained essential foundational knowledge. Thus, while educational endeavors will continue to emphasize key skills such as critical thinking, the approaches will require modifications to adapt to the ongoing expansion of AI. Despite the absence or presence of AI in the classroom, educators must ensure that students are able to communicate clearly and effectively, can cultivate their own curiosity and build empathy as they progress in their academic careers. Finally, as AI-generated content expands, we must provide leadership by actively engaging in conversations to guide ethical decisions regarding its use.

 

As AI-generated content expands, we must provide leadership by actively engaging in conversations to guide ethical decisions regarding its use.

Strategic Options

Many educators are currently considering options to limit classroom use of AI such as reverting to assessments involving either in-class essay questions or oral examinations. These types of approaches can be unnecessarily stressful to students and often fail to promote higher order thinking skills. Educators may also choose to screen written assignments using AI detection software. However, the questionable accuracy of currently available software threatens fairness to the students who may incorrectly be accused of wrongdoing.

Strategies that are designed to encourage students’ creativity and scientific curiosity seem to be more effective. In designing assignments and classroom activities, the objective is to foster an appreciation of the learning process while cultivating an engaged learning environment within the classroom. Assignments are often focused on a student’s unique experience, which could involve a classroom discussion, a personal experience or a specific observation that is relevant to the class material.

Other approaches that may be considered include assigning students to conduct an interview with a scientist involved in research that is relevant to a topic covered in class. Interview questions could be developed as part of a class activity and the interview could be conducted with students working either alone or in pairs. These interviews would help students understand the different types of pharmacological questions that are currently being addressed by researchers, the approaches being used and the variety of career opportunities available to those with pharmacological training. In addition, students could be asked to identify a current pharmacological issue that is being covered by the news media. Here, they could critique the accuracy of the science depicted and outline the storytelling attributes of the news story. The assessment portion of these assignments could involve either a written report or an in-class oral report wherein application of both critical thinking and science communication skills would be encouraged. In developing these types of approaches, the classroom will likely not be “AI-proof” but will hopefully minimize the unwelcome appearance of AI-generated content in students’ submitted work.

It is best to include a clear policy that is outlined in your course syllabus if AI is included in a course. Students must be aware that claiming AI-generated content as their own work is a form of plagiarism. A number of policies are available (Syllabi Policies for AI Generative Tools), such as—

GenAI tools such as ChatGPT may be used in this course for the purposes of pre-submission activities such as brainstorming, testing out ideas, editing text, outlining, or structuring an argument. However, learners are responsible for submitting work that meets the assignment standards for quality and factual accuracy. Before submitting any assignment that was aided in any way by GenAI, students are responsible for fact-checking all statements and ensuring that any content drawn from other sources—including the use of GenAI—is appropriately acknowledged through the citation practices used in this course. By keeping track of your AI use and sharing your experiences, we all gain understanding, identify potential issues in this rapidly changing field, and discover better ways to use the resources for our objectives. If you have any questions or concerns about this policy, contact your instructor before submitting any assignments.

Other successful approaches have been used in courses such as “Pharmacology of Treating Human Disease” and “Exploring the Dark Side of Pharmacology” at the University of Kentucky. Both of these classes meet twice weekly for a 75-minute period. In the fall class, the lecture is typically approximately 30–40 minutes on topics covering pharmacology principles and specific disease treatments. During the remainder of the class, students work in small groups to engage in activities and discussions. In the spring class, classroom time is primarily spent with students working in small groups to discuss case studies focused on a variety of issues pertaining to drug development and disease treatment.

Many of the students in the fall class are also enrolled in the spring class. The upper-level undergraduate/graduate level pharmacology classes offer ways for students and the instructor to explore AI’s potential while also becoming familiar with its shortcomings. In the strategies described below, 1–5 are focused on incorporating AI into the classroom whereas 6–9 are approaches to be used for achieving learning objectives while discouraging students’ overt reliance on AI.

Two students working together in a science lab

Incorporating AI into the Classroom

1. Explore the use of AI as a teaching assistant.

To understand how AI is being used by students (and attempt to outsmart them), educators must become more familiar with how it may be incorporated. Interactions with ChatGPT 3.5 can be used to help organize lectures and to generate quiz questions. For example, this interaction can be used to guide lecture development on drug-drug interactions. The first prompt was “What are the top ten drug interactions?” This was followed by “Put the answers into categories based on mechanisms,” “What are more examples involving enzyme inhibitors?” and finally, “What are additional examples involving enzyme induction?” These responses provide a good framework for further developing lecture material.

ChatGPT 3.5 can also be useful for developing quiz questions. It has been especially helpful in developing descriptive stems for questions that can be modified. However, its use for developing pharmacokinetic questions has been problematic and error prone. As noted by many, “ChatGPT can’t do math.” Below is an example of an interaction used for creating a quiz to query students’ basic understanding of pharmacodynamics.

(Prompt): “You are the quiz creator of highly diagnostic quizzes. You will make good, low-stakes tests and diagnostics. You will then ask me two questions: what, specifically the quiz should test, and what audience the quiz is for. Once you have my answers you will construct several multiple-choice questions to quiz the audience on that topic. The questions should be highly relevant and go beyond just facts. Multiple-choice questions should include plausible, competitive alternate responses and should not include an “all of the above” option. At the end of the quiz, you will provide an answer key and explain the right answer.”

ChatGPT: “Great! Thank you for the clarification. Please let me know what specific topic you’d like the quiz to test and who the audience is for.”

(Prompt): “I am teaching pharmacodynamics to juniors at a university.”

ChatGPT: “Excellent! Based on your teaching of pharmacodynamics to university juniors, I’ll create a quiz to test their understanding of the topic. Here is a multiple-choice question: Which of the following best describes pharmacodynamics? A) The study of how drugs affect the body; B) The study of how the body affects drugs; C) The study of drug interactions with other drugs; D) The study of drug metabolism.

Answer Key: A) The study of how drugs affect the body. Pharmacodynamics examines how drugs exert their effects on the body and their mechanisms of action.”

A left hand holding a smartphone, which displays a black screen with light pink text: Introducing ChatGPT
An OpenAI webpage for ChatGPT, as seen on a smartphone.

2. Probe your students’ comfort level with AI.

On the first day of class in the fall, instructors can conduct an anonymous survey that queried the students’ knowledge and comfort level with AI. Learning whether they would be willing to create individual ChatGPT accounts and use this tool in our class discussions and their assigned work can be helpful. Many students have become more aware of privacy issues and are thus reluctant to engage in these types of activities. To address this issue, some universities have developed closed AI platforms. However, this option is not always available. Some students are not enthused with using ChatGPT. Other approaches can be used to introduce students to the risks and benefits associated with the use of AI while also honing their critical thinking skills as they learned more about pharmacology. These approaches are described in the following strategies.

3. Ask students to critique AI-generated responses.

Using this assignment early in the fall semester helped the students realize how AI could be used, recognize its limitations, and identify the variations in responses from the different AI platforms. For the first two prompts, Bing Chat was used to help describe the estrogen receptor and the mechanisms of Orserdu, a selective estrogen receptor degrader that was approved by the FDA in January 2023. The students were instructed to review the accuracy of the answer, identify any inaccurate statements, and critique the sources. For these prompts, Bing Chat relied primarily on Wikipedia, the package inserts and drugs.com. Most students realized that the answers provided by Bing Chat were superficial and lacked the appropriate depth. This led to a good class discussion on what types of references would meet expectations in class assignments and activities.

In a third prompt, Bing and ChatGPT 3.5 were used to “Compare Orserdu to tamoxifen” and “Does Orserdu work better than tamoxifen”? While Bing Chat was able to provide a comparison in the use of these two drugs, ChatGPT 3.5 stated that in its last update in September 2021, there was no drug called Orserdu. Overall, the information provided in these answers was adequate, but poorly organized and lacked appropriate references. Our subsequent class discussion focused on how to write a good paragraph and how information should be organized within a paragraph.

Finally, Google Bard was used for two opposing questions; “Explain for an academic audience why people who eat worms are more likely to have high breast cancer survival rates” and “Explain for an academic audience why people who eat worms are less likely to have high breast cancer survival rates”. Interestingly, Google Bard maintained that in both cases, the underlying mechanism was an enhanced immune system. The students quickly realized that AI was capable of generating quite a bit of confident nonsense that contradicted itself.

4. Introduce the emerging use of AI in medicine.

Class discussion can be used to focus on the use of AI in patient care and drug discovery. For example, the objective was to have the students weigh the advantages and disadvantages associated with the use of AI in each application. The class was presented with a brief reading on the selected topic and were then instructed to work in small groups to outline AI’s potential for improving healthcare and any concerns that they may have regarding its use. The readings were selected from either reputable news outlets (i.e., New York Times or National Public Radio) or Nature or Psychology Today. With respect to use of AI in healthcare, the two issues that were explored were using AI to detect Alzheimer’s disease and to provide advice to patients. Student responses to these issues included their appreciation for the convenience associated with the use of AI in each case, particularly for individuals who may lack access to health care providers. Their concerns included potential loss of privacy, introduction of bias and the lack of human empathy required for communicating emotionally charged medical information.

Students were then introduced to the use of AI in Drug Discovery via this blog—How artificial intelligence is revolutionizing drug discovery. They were instructed to identify and discuss a few areas that they thought were the most exciting. This discussion was lack luster, in part, due to lack of sufficient allotted class time but also because the material presented was too advanced. This topic would be more appropriate for a second-year pharmacology course that would take place after the students were more familiar with advanced biomedical science, scientific research, bioinformatics and the use of AI systems such as AlphaFold.

5. Introduce the legal and ethical implications of AI use.

Educational activities that also need attention in the pharmacology classroom are those that address the legal and ethical aspects associated with the use of AI in scientific endeavors. Legal issues include the fair use of data and creative content. In addition, as AI is integrated into the operations of a workplace, potential legal liabilities arise. Ethical implications include the use of AI-generated content in submitted manuscripts and grants as well as the peer review process. A student’s use of AI-generated content in submitted manuscripts or grant applications may lead to cases of research misconduct. While many journals now have statements regarding the use of AI in generating content, some argue that these policies are insufficient. With respect to peer review, students should be aware that use of AI in this process is considered to be a breach of confidentiality. These topics should be addressed in classroom discussions that are focused on scientific writing and/or scientific ethics.

Female teacher giving presentation using artificial intelligence.
Female teacher giving presentation using artificial intelligence.

Achieving Learning Objectives with AI

6. Emphasize that writing is a process.

The major written assignment for the Fall 2023 cohort focused on the development of antifungal agents. Students were instructed to assume that they were working as a scientist within a drug company. To aid in their writing process, they were provided with a description of “how to write a paragraph.” They were then asked to address three questions. The first question pertained to the extent to which host genetics contributed to the lethality of fungal infections. In the second question, they were asked to select the best newly developed antifungal drug from a list of drugs currently being developed (that was provided) and describe why this drug was the best. For these two questions, they were instructed to describe three independent pieces of evidence (i.e., scientific observations or original research) that supported their answers and explain why they chose each reference. In the third question, they were instructed to design three experiments that would test the effectiveness of an agonist of antagonist of Ste2, a fungal G-protein-coupled receptor. In their experimental design, they were prompted to draw their expected results. As they developed their experiments, students were expected to review the lecture materials that covered pharmacodynamics and experimental approaches commonly used for demonstrating a drug’s mechanism of action.

The emphasis on the writing process rather than the final writing product was facilitated by assigning points for the submission of an initial draft, peer review and the extent to which the final submission had incorporated feedback from me as well as their peers. While none of the students admitted to using AI in this assignment, one submission for the initial draft contained a suspicious inconsistency with previous examples of this student’s work and use of highly sophisticated methods that was not accompanied by the required drawing of expected results. Instructor comments on this submission failed to engage the student but did result in the submission of a final draft that more closely aligned with expectations of their own work.

7. Promote engagement, collaboration and oral/written communication.

To create a unique in-class experience, a debate was designed involving all 20 class participants. This provided the students with an opportunity to learn about a current pharmacological issue being addressed by the FDA, work collaboratively, identify supportive scientific evidence, hone their oral speaking skills and write a critical analysis of their performance and that of their team. The debate focused on the FDA approval of the Alzheimer’s drug Donanemab with the class divided into pro and con teams. Each team member had an assigned role (i.e., manufacturer, patient advocate, physician, biomedical scientist, etc.) and a specific time allotted for them to present their prepared statements. Preparation for the debate was conducted during the previous class period. Here, each team elected a leader, signed up for their role and developed their position statement. To aid in their organization, a matrix of pros and cons for them to complete was used. During the debate, each team presented their argument while following the instructions for debate etiquette that were provided. After the first debate round, each team regrouped to debrief, discuss their strategies and then engaged in the second round of rebuttals. After each team presented their final arguments, a class vote was taken to identify the winning team.

For the written aspect of this activity, the students were instructed to provide their presentation notes, references, a summary of their arguments and their own personal viewpoint on the topic. They were also asked to write a summary of the most important points of each team as well as their strengths and weaknesses. This assignment was very well received with several students providing positive comments in their course evaluations that emphasized how much they had learned and their appreciation for this unique experience.

8. Foster curiosity and the ability to ask good questions.

For the final assignment in the fall semester, the students were assigned to present a case study. It was expected that the students would be able to incorporate their learning from the course of the semester, research their topic and solicit feedback from the instructor and their classmates. By choosing their topics at mid-semester, overlap between topics was avoided. The objective in this assignment was to emphasize the art of asking good scientific questions. Students were directed to address a gap in knowledge on a topic of their choice. Their presentation included a background section, three research questions that needed to be addressed and well-researched answers to each question. Their presentation could encompass limitations to effective disease treatment, strategies to be used for disease prevention or improving diagnoses. A brief question-and-answer session allowed for classmates to engage with the speaker. Points were allotted for being able to address questions from classmates or me as well as participating in peer review. In the majority of these presentations, students were highly engaged and posed high-quality questions to each speaker.

9. Foster creativity and good science communication.

In the spring course, the final assignment is a podcast. To prepare for this assignment, a class period was devoted early in the semester to the critique of a relevant podcast. The podcast chosen was “The Dirty Drug and the Ice Cream Tub” produced by Radiolab that focuses on the development of Rapamycin. Using the pair and share approach, the class conducted an expository analysis (addressing questions such as “What are the guiding research questions” and “Who are the sources of this piece”) as well as a rhetorical analysis (addressing questions such as “What is the narrator’s purpose for publishing this piece” and “Who is the audience for this piece”) of the podcast. The class also focused on the podcast’s conclusions and the impact on them. All of the students found the podcast to be inspiring. At mid-semester, the pair and share approach was used again, and each student was asked to describe their plans for their own podcast. This was followed by a written assignment that required them to identify at least two sources for their podcast. The final podcast was submitted during finals week. All of the podcasts were made available for the students after they are graded. The podcasts were very impressive, produced with very high quality, addressed a wide range of topics, and reflected the enthusiasm of the students for their topics.

There are a variety of strategic approaches and options that can be used in the pharmacology classroom to help alleviate anxiety regarding the impact of AI on student learning. While AI is likely to dramatically change instruction in the pharmacology classroom, the key elements associated with scientific discovery and the dissemination of new information are unchanged. It is vital that as we embrace this new technology with students, the foundation of the scientific process remains as well as the pillars that support the scientific community.

Author

  • Hollie Swanson, PhD

    Hollie Swanson, PhD, is a professor in the Department of Pharmacology and Nutritional Sciences at the University of Kentucky College of Medicine. She is also the Director of the Integrated Biomedical Sciences Graduate program and the Summer Training in Environmental Health Sciences program. Her research interests have focused on environmental toxicology, drug metabolism and nuclear receptors.

    Swanson, PhD Hollie