Vanderbilt classes incorporate AI technology to enhance learning

Professors say tools like ChatGPT can serve as a coach, tutor and critic, likening them to an ‘exoskeleton for the mind.’

by Lucas Johnson

Gian Luca Lupica-Tondo never really gave much thought to using generative artificial intelligence as a coding assistant. But now that he’s taken an AI-assisted programming class at Vanderbilt University, the senior engineering science major has gained a tool that can improve his learning as well as prepare him for a changing workforce that is slowly incorporating generative AI.

Gian Luca Lupica-Tondo

“Having little programming background, the use of large language models such as ChatGPT has allowed me to focus on building logic instead of worrying about the syntax,” says Lupica-Tondo, who is also majoring in molecular and cellular biology. “It has allowed me to be more creative while also producing more, which I previously thought would be impossible.”

The class in the School of Engineering is among a number of generative-AI courses offered at Vanderbilt, which has been recognized as a leader in this space by providing training and workshops to faculty and students. A recent paper authored by three Vanderbilt professors on how ChatGPT impacts intro programming classes was accepted to ICSE-SEET 2024, one of the main venues for software engineering and programming education.

Another class, a three-week 18-hour online course taught by Jules White, Senior Advisor to the Chancellor for Generative AI in Education and Enterprise Solutions at Vanderbilt, has enrolled nearly 195,000 students since it launched last summer and continues to be one of the most popular online classes about AI.

“My prompt engineering class is probably one of the largest enrolled classes in the world on this topic that’s online and free,” says White, co-author of a paper on prompt engineering best practices that is routinely cited among academics.

Jules White

White, who was quoted in a recent Nature article, says that “generative AI can serve as an exoskeleton for the mind by helping humans to break out of the confines of traditional problem-solving. It doesn’t replace humans but helps them get a head start analyzing and realizing their ideas.”

Some of the generative-AI classes at Vanderbilt teach students fundamentals, like how to properly phrase questions to get meaningful answers to specific questions or problems.

In the AI-assisted programming course taught by Charreau Bell, senior data scientist with the Data Science Institute at Vanderbilt, generative AI mostly serves as a versatile support tool. “It offers 24/7 support, taking on any number of roles—tutor, coach, critic—to meet the students’ educational needs,” says Bell.

For example, as a tutor, she says generative AI can engage students in a constructive dialogue, allowing them to propose solutions and receive feedback. This interaction helps them identify and correct misunderstandings in their thought processes. As a coach, particularly for students who are apprehensive about public speaking, it can provide suggestions on both content and delivery, she says, building their confidence in a way that was previously costly or inaccessible outside of standard hours.

Even more, the class allows students to add their own innovations. For instance, Bell noted how Lupica-Tondo was able to develop an AI platform for Ribonucleic acid (RNA) sequencing statistics, transforming complex coding tasks into intuitive, natural language processes.

Charreau Bell

“This advancement not only accelerates research but also democratizes access to sophisticated data analysis,” says Bell.

Some critics of LLMs, such as ChatGPT, say they may encourage students to cheat. But supporters believe such behavior can be avoided if individuals are taught how to properly use generative AI.

“The discussion of generative AI as a tool to cheat has, unfortunately, set the wrong tone for one of the most important innovations of our lifetime,” says White. “The discussion of cheating has made people feel like it is somehow wrong to use and educate themselves on this critical technology. Considering the importance of Generative AI in our future, it’s important that we move past discussions of cheating and start focusing on innovation.”

Rather, White and others view generative AI as a tool to enhance education. For instance, they say using LLMs to read and summarize large stretches of text could save students and teachers time and help them to instead focus on discussion and learning.

Jesse Spencer-Smith

Jesse Spencer-Smith, interim director of the Data Science Institute and chief data scientist, uses a generative AI model in one of his classes to upload multiple research papers for students to read and then use the AI to answer any questions they may have about the papers.

“What I’m able to do is to challenge them to dive deep into the papers,” says Spencer-Smith. “Whereas before I might be able to do one paper a week, now I can do three or four papers because they can get directly to the heart of the matter. They’re learning how to use the AI, as they will be using it in their careers.”


According to a recent study conducted by higher education research group, about 30% of college students used ChatGPT for schoolwork this past academic year. The study also found 46% frequently used the tool to do their homework.

At Vanderbilt, students taking the AI classes say they appreciate what they’re learning now because they know they’re going to need that knowledge when they enter the workforce.

Shalini Thinakaran

Junior Shalini Thinakaran is in Bell’s AI-assisted programming class. For her final project, she curated a dataset of seminal literature from scholars of systemic inequity and fine-tuned a language model on their writings. Her work was featured in the Data Science Institute’s inaugural AI Showcase, placing second in the competition.

“This course has not only illuminated AI’s vast potential but also the careful considerations required in development and deployment,” says Thinakaran, who is majoring in computer science and Latin American studies with a minor in Data Science.

Lupica-Tondo says the class is not only preparing him to be more competitive in the real world but is also helping him in his daily activities.

“I strongly believe that learning how to use these models is imperative for the workforce of our generation, as well as future ones,” he says. “AI has completely changed how I work, prioritize time, and manage multiple projects simultaneously.”

Bell says the students aren’t just prepared for the future of work they’re actively shaping it.

“Interacting with AI in the classroom is preparation for their future roles in a rapidly evolving professional landscape,” she says. “They are well-equipped with a forward-thinking approach that blends AI with human ingenuity.”