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  • Writer's pictureBarbara Mayfield, MS, RDN, LD, FAND

Are you smarter than a 5th grader? Use AI to explain complex concepts.

woman holding her chin and thinking about equations

Is using AI smart? Is it safe? That is the question...

Just one day before publishing this post, the New York Times published an article describing the efforts of Elon Musk and others calling for a pause on Artificial Intelligence (AI), citing ‘Profound Risks to Society.’ Read the article.

The Times article raises important questions about how AI can and should be used, warning of potential dangers including the spread of disinformation. Last week’s post, Will artificial intelligence make us smarter or dumber? It's up to us, addressed some of these concerns.

Whether this call to arms leads to a pause in the development of these tools, it is a welcome and important caution to consider the implications and risks of this technology.

I believe AI can serve useful purposes if employed ethically and with human intelligence. Will it be? To quote last week's post, that is up to us.

Today’s post explores one of the ways AI could make our jobs as nutrition communicators more effective and efficient, which is by helping us explain complex ideas in ways our audiences can understand.

Explaining complex concepts is a challenge.

A challenge for food and nutrition professionals is communicating complex concepts to various audiences. To prepare future professionals for this challenge, I created an assignment for students in Purdue’s nutrition communication course we creatively called “The Complex Concept.”

The assignment required students to come up with a creative method for explaining a complex concept using something other than PowerPoint slides, which I think we can agree are often poorly used and certainly overused.

Students were encouraged to include audience participation, create stories or skits, use props or demonstrations, and employ other unique approaches. The resulting presentations were memorable for both the presenters and the audience.

If I were still teaching this course, I would consider incorporating the use of AI as a potential step in the process of coming up with their explanations. As we discussed in this post, AI can be used for many purposes, including coming up with effective explanations for complex concepts.

Let’s put ChatGPT to the test. I will use a complex concept we used as practice in class and see what it comes up with.

Explain statistical significance to someone with limited knowledge of statistics:

ChatGPT’s response:

Statistical significance refers to whether an observed difference between two or more groups or conditions is likely due to chance or if it is a real, meaningful difference. In other words, it helps us determine if the results of a study or experiment are trustworthy and reliable.

To determine statistical significance, researchers use statistical tests that compare the results of the different groups or conditions being studied. If the difference between the groups is large enough, and the number of participants in the study is sufficient, then the statistical test will indicate that the observed difference is unlikely to be due to chance.

Statistical significance is important because it helps us make informed decisions based on data. For example, if a new drug is being tested, we want to know if the observed improvement in patients is statistically significant, so we can be confident that the drug is actually effective and not just due to chance.

What is an example using food or nutrition to explain statistical significance?

ChatGPT’s response:

Let's say a group of researchers want to test the effect of a new diet on weight loss. They randomly assign participants to two groups: one group follows the new diet, and the other group continues their normal eating habits (the control group). After 8 weeks, the researchers measure the weight of each participant.

If the average weight loss in the diet group is 5 pounds, and the average weight loss in the control group is 1 pound, we might conclude that the diet is effective. However, it's possible that this difference is due to chance or other factors unrelated to the diet, especially if the sample size is small.

To determine if the observed difference is statistically significant, the researchers can conduct a statistical test. If the test indicates that the difference between the two groups is unlikely to be due to chance (e.g., p-value less than 0.05), we can say that the weight loss observed in the diet group is statistically significant.

This would mean that the observed weight loss is not likely due to chance and is more likely the result of the new diet. Therefore, we can have more confidence that the diet is effective for weight loss.

AI can help teachers teach and students learn.

Explaining complex concepts is a challenge for educators as well as students. Asking AI tools like ChatGPT could be helpful when writing lectures or creating class materials, especially in coming up with examples and explanations.

It could also be a suggestion for students who are seeking extra study help in subjects they find difficult. Multiple explanations of the same concept, using different examples and illustrations, can reach learners with various learning styles and base knowledge.

Determining the accuracy of the information ultimately remains the responsibility of the user. Ask the AI tool for references and compare the answers with other reputable sources. Multiple references are always necessary when researching a topic.

When I was writing the introductory textbook for non-nutrition majors, Nutrition for Everyone, I remember agonizing over how to explain energy metabolism. Do I dive into the steps of cellular respiration and the Krebs Cycle? If ChatGPT had been available, I might have asked it for help. Let’s see what it would have told me when I asked…

How does the body convert food into energy?

ChatGPT’s response:

The body converts food into energy through a process called cellular respiration, which occurs in the cells of the body, particularly in the mitochondria. This process involves a series of chemical reactions that break down glucose and other molecules from food, releasing the energy stored in their chemical bonds and producing molecules like ATP (adenosine triphosphate) that can be used to power various cellular processes.

The process of cellular respiration involves three main stages: glycolysis, the Krebs cycle (also called the citric acid cycle), and the electron transport chain. Here's a brief overview of each stage:

1. Glycolysis: In this stage, glucose is broken down into two molecules of pyruvate. This process occurs in the cytoplasm of the cell and doesn't require oxygen. Glycolysis produces a small amount of ATP and NADH (nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide), which is an energy-rich molecule.

2. Krebs cycle: In this stage, pyruvate is transported into the mitochondria and converted into acetyl-CoA, which enters the Krebs cycle. The Krebs cycle is a series of chemical reactions that generate energy-rich molecules like ATP, NADH, and FADH2 (flavin adenine dinucleotide). The Krebs cycle requires oxygen and occurs in the mitochondria.

3. Electron transport chain: In this stage, the NADH and FADH2 produced in the previous stages are used to generate ATP. This occurs through a series of chemical reactions that pass electrons along a chain of molecules in the mitochondria, eventually producing ATP.

Overall, the body converts food into energy through the process of cellular respiration, which involves breaking down glucose and other molecules from food to release the energy stored in their chemical bonds and producing molecules like ATP that can be used to power cellular processes.

If I were a student wanting to explain this concept in Purdue’s “Complex Concept” assignment, how could we get creative? Can AI help us write a song or a story? Let’s see…

Can you make these stages into a rap or rhyme?

ChatGPT’s response:

Sure, I can give it a try!

Verse 1: Let me break it down, how we convert our food, Into energy, we can use and move. It starts with glycolysis, in the cytoplasm, Glucose broken down, with a tiny spasm. Produces ATP, and NADH too, It doesn't need oxygen, it's a fact that's true.

Chorus: Cellular respiration, how we get our energy, Three stages, working in synergy. Glycolysis, Krebs cycle, and the ETC, Working together, to set us free.

Verse 2: Next up is Krebs cycle, in the mitochondria, Pyruvate converted, to Acetyl-CoA. A series of reactions, to generate power, ATP, NADH, FADH2 to devour. Requires oxygen, to keep the cycle going, And keep us moving, keep us flowing.

Chorus: Cellular respiration, how we get our energy, Three stages, working in synergy. Glycolysis, Krebs cycle, and the ETC, Working together, to set us free.

Verse 3: Last stage is the ETC, where the magic happens, NADH, FADH2, electrons they're passing.

A chain of molecules, in the mitochondria, ATP is produced, and the energy criteria. Oxygen is needed, to keep the chain running, And keep us dancing, keep us humming.

Chorus: Cellular respiration, how we get our energy, Three stages, working in synergy. Glycolysis, Krebs cycle, and the ETC, Working together, to set us free.

Outro: That's how we convert food, into energy to use, In every cell of our body, no excuse. Cellular respiration, a process we can't deny, Keeps us going, till the day we die.

Tell a story to explain cellular respiration without using jargon.

ChatGPT’s response:

Once upon a time, there was a kingdom of cells, each with their own important job to do. The cells needed energy to carry out their work, so they had to find a way to make it.

One day, the cells discovered a magical substance called glucose. Glucose was a type of sugar that was found in the food they ate, and it was packed with energy. But the cells couldn't use the energy in glucose right away - they needed to break it down into smaller pieces first.

So the cells decided to start a process called cellular respiration. They knew that this process had three stages - glycolysis, the Krebs cycle, and the electron transport chain. Each stage had a different job to do in breaking down glucose and producing energy.

In the first stage, glycolysis, the cells broke down glucose into smaller molecules called pyruvate. This step didn't require any oxygen, and it produced a small amount of energy.

Next, the pyruvate molecules moved into the mitochondria - the energy factories of the cells. Here, the Krebs cycle began. In this stage, the pyruvate was broken down even further, producing energy-rich molecules like ATP and NADH.

Finally, the energy-rich molecules produced in the first two stages were used in the electron transport chain. This stage required oxygen, and it was like a conveyor belt where energy was passed from one molecule to the next, generating even more ATP.

With the three stages of cellular respiration working together, the cells were able to break down glucose and produce the energy they needed to do their work. They could keep the kingdom running smoothly, and everything was in balance.

And so, the cells lived happily ever after, continuing to use cellular respiration to turn glucose into energy and keep the kingdom thriving. The end.

Would you consider using AI to explain complex ideas?

What concepts are you challenged to explain? Could ChatGPT start your creative juices flowing and help you come up with ways to make complexity simpler for your audiences?

Ask it multiple questions to come up with a variety of ways to explain a concept. Use your knowledge to check for potential disinformation. Allow its answers to prompt your own writing and give AI credit for the assistance.

ChatGPT, how should you be listed as a reference?

ChatGPT’s response:

If you want to cite me, ChatGPT, as a reference, you can use the following information: OpenAI. (2020). GPT-3.5 [Language model]. Retrieved from

“If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” ~ Albert Einstein

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