Youwei Zhen, a senior at Staten Island Technical High School, with technology teacher Michael Whalen and Principal Mark Erlenwein, right.

In November of 2022, ChatGPT appeared, giving context to Elon Musk’s “civilization destruction” prophecy that AI will permeate—and possibly destroy—all aspects of society. With meteoric impact, the first notable ripple of concern quickly turned into a tsunami of anxiety in classrooms around the world. Student folklore soon emerged at cafeteria tables while tater tots were nibbled and chocolate milk sipped of how ChatGPT could write research papers, complete homework, and answer an endless array of text-based entered questions, mimicking human conversation.

Meanwhile, water cooler conversations in teachers’ lounges created venti-sized chatter and valid concerns as AI-generated student work began to appear in Google Classroom inboxes. How would the authenticity of that work ever be truly validated given the new reality of AI platforms?

Anyone who has been in education for the past quarter-century will remember a familiar disturbance when Google Search made its debut in 1998, forever changing the world and education. Back then, we quickly adapted and became search experts as browsers allowed us to “navigate” and “explore” the world wide web for information and answers, leading to more questions. After all, “search” often encompassed returning queries with only pieces of the answers we were seeking, rarely delivering a complete response with precision specifically nuanced to our desires—until now.

A Professional Development Day for AI

Like a masterful musician finds their way eventually on an upright bass, we too will find our way. As school leaders and educators, we must not fret or “freak out,” as our students would say. At Staten Island Technical High School, where I am principal, we decided to try to get ahead of the AI learning curve. At a faculty meeting we held in December of last year on AI’s emergence in schools, we assured the staff by acknowledging the elephant in the room directly, promising a deeper dive after the holidays during our day-long professional development extravaganza in January.

Once that day arrived—a sort of AI Palooza—teachers from all disciplines took center stage at a giant screen and modeled AI exemplars and postulates for the faculty at large. What emerged quicker than ever was the adaptability of the technology and the immediate awareness of how student work-product authenticity would be affected. Teachers also realized this technology was an important tool to help bolster their own productivity.

Youwei Zhen with the home page for SammyGPT, a ChatGPT adaptation he created for Staten Island Technical High School.

Our school had already plunged deep into the depths of project- and work-based learning many years prior, so I’m proud to say we prepared ourselves and our students for this moment. To help allay any fears over the authenticity of student work, we’ve transitioned our lesson planning toward creating intentional learning experiences that include in-the-moment discovery, inquiry, and application of learned skills. This shift, coupled with frequent feedback and applied critical thinking modalities, enables teachers to assess learning actively, which continues to prove ideal in the age of AI.

Harnessing the Power of ChatGPT

A great example of this practice is the creation of the SammyGPT platform created by one of our students, Youwei Zhen. Staten Island Tech’s mascot is Sammy the Seagull. Zhen, a senior, created Sammy GPT as a ChatGPT adaptation for Staten Island Tech. The platform integrates academic dishonesty detection (i.e., detecting plagiarism through the use of ChatGPT) and student and parent feedback on inquiries about our school’s extracurricular activities, admission processes, courses, and school calendar. SammyGPT ultimately shows that AI can make a major difference in students’ learning, significantly decreasing plagiarism and enhancing teachers’ efficiency.

Zhen wrote a proposal during our school’s 2023 Summer Design Institute, in which students use professional, industry-standard programs to become proficient in designing, drawing, programming, and prototyping by using industry standard software in a professional array of specialization, such as architecture, engineering, 3D media and animation, web development, graphic arts, and A/V production. Students who participate in this program also learn how to critically address engineering and technology challenges and develop skills in creative thinking, scope and design, and decision-making strategies for addressing higher level problem-solving. Students primarily use Autodesk software (AutoCAD, Inventor, 3DS Max, and Revit), the Adobe suite (Photoshop, Premiere, After Effects), and GitHub.

Erlenwein on campus at Staten Island Tech. To show how life-like AI-generated images can be, this picture includes a flying saucer, oversize keyboard, washed-up fish, pavement script, a robot, and seagulls—a nod to the school’s mascot.

These programs lead industries globally in professional and educational applications, and they allow us to create a project- and standards-based, cross-discipline learning experience. Such opportunities also align with our current career and technical education offerings during the school year, enabling students to pursue unique projects with peers under the supervision of a licensed teacher and in conjunction with industry partners.

What Zhen created with SammyGPT is nothing short of a masterpiece in harnessing the power of AI technology to empower students in solving problems using 21st century global learning skills. Including students in the process of demystifying and demonstrating how we can work together to create tools and solutions in the case of AI and ChatGPT is exemplified in a video where Zhen himself explains how AI/ChatGPT was leveraged to create tools that help educators authenticate student work, as well as tools that help students and their families navigate the school’s website and use language interpretation services (in Chinese and Russian with more languages to come) for all questions pertaining to Staten Island Tech. What’s most excellent about Zhen’s approach to creating this application is that he designed it with the intent that any school could adapt the source code he created for use on their school website and in their school community.

To help allay any fears over the authenticity of student work, we’ve transitioned our lesson planning toward creating intentional learning experiences that include in-the-moment discovery, inquiry, and application of learned skills.

The late Dr. Woodie Flowers, coined the term, “Gracious Professionalism,” which is the very essence and ethos of Dean Kamen’s FIRST Robotics, (Flowers and Kamen collaborated on developing the FIRST Robotics Competition). As FIRST makes clear, “Gracious Professionalism is a way of doing things that encourages high-quality work, emphasizes the value of others, and respects individuals and the community. With Gracious Professionalism, fierce competition and mutual gain are not separate notions.” Zhen’s work with SammyGPT, fostering digital citizenship across intercommunal education hierarchies, epitomizes Gracious Professionalism.

AI will always rely in some way, shape, or form on the power of human inquiry. In the process of achieving progress, and as we reach greater heights in increasingly shorter periods of time, may we always retain our humanity wherein our greatness lies.

Mark Erlenwein is the principal of Staten Island Technical High School in Staten Island, NY.


Duffy, C., & Maruf R. (2023, April 17). Elon Musk warns AI could cause ‘civilization destruction’ even as he invests in it. CNN.

Erlenwein, M. (2023, September). Sammy GPT-Staten Island Tech . YouTube.

Zhen, Y. (2023). SammyGPT: Proposal plan.