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AI, Tie-dye, and Virtual Learning

AI4ALL Summer Programs 2020 welcomed our largest cohort of high schoolers yet, despite a challenging year

University of Texas, El Paso ran UTEP AI4ALL for the first time this year, connecting students from the El Paso area with opportunities to explore AI through hands-on small group projects.

Caleb didn’t know what to expect when he got the acceptance email from Princeton AI4ALL, a program he’d applied to almost on a whim, not finding many opportunities to explore AI or computer science in his home-town of Hackensack, New Jersey. “Computer science always seemed interesting, but I never really had the opportunity to do it. So when I heard about this program, the fact that I was even able to apply for it was amazing.”

Caleb had been excited to spend the summer on Princeton’s campus and was nervous about the virtual program experience, expecting a lot of “awkward silences” and difficulty connecting with other students and faculty. He also doubted how rigorous AI4ALL would be, anticipating “easy coding” like some of the one-off coding days he’d participated in during middle school — “I’m like oh man, they’re not gonna take us seriously.”

By the end of his three weeks in Princeton AI4ALL, however, Caleb had grown in both confidence and technical skill — shifting his career focus to engineering design — “I really do want to be an engineer, and so I think I can use those computer science concepts and AI concepts in the future,” and even beginning an outreach project to introduce AI to other kids in his hometown with other students he met during Princeton AI4ALL. The most impactful part of AI4ALL for Caleb, however, was being able to see himself in AI.

“I can have a place in this community, in this field. It’s something I’m really going to keep in mind always.”

This summer, AI4ALL introduced 362 high school students, including Caleb, to artificial intelligence, adapting 14 of our 16 university Summer Programs to run virtually. We hired 23 AI4ALL Summer Program alumni, our Changemakers in AI, as teaching assistants to aid our Summer Program sites. And we offered over $20,000 in stipends as income replacements for students whose program participation was influenced by financial considerations, in addition to any other tuition waivers students may have received.

Back in the spring, when we announced our transition to virtual learning, we told you that our priorities were ensuring the health and safety of our students, assessing their needs, and providing them as many resources as possible. We also told you that we knew resources would not be enough and that we had concerns — about the quality of educational experience for everyone involved, about equity and access, and about community-building. While this summer did present difficulties, by focusing on our core principles, we ran a successful cohort of Summer Programs, building a strong foundation we can iterate on moving forward.

Quality of Educational Experience

All AI4ALL programs, including AI4ALL Summer Programs, are built on four pillars: AI Understanding, Ethics & Societal Impact, Community-Building, and Leadership Development.

This summer required us to redefine our priorities — for our students and for ourselves. With the core AI4ALL Educational Pillars as our guide, we reexamined the Summer Program structure, developing a plan to incorporate each pillar into our virtual learning environment. By grounding our virtual transition in our educational objectives, we built a foundation that can be continually iterated upon to better serve our students. The AI4ALL Educational Pillars are:

  1. AI Understanding: Provide students a technical introduction to the core concepts of AI.
  2. Ethics & Societal Impact: Ensure students understand the societal impacts of AI and think critically about solutions.
  3. Community-Building: Ensure students feel part of a community and are exposed to diverse Role Models in AI.
  4. Leadership Development: Develop confidence, communication, influence, and perseverance amongst our students.

The cornerstone of the AI4ALL Summer Program is the research project, during which students apply the technical, ethical, and critical thinking skills developed during the program. These real-life research projects vary based on the specific research expertise of the university, AI lab, or faculty running the AI4ALL program. At Seattle U AI4ALL, students worked with data from the Seattle Police Department to identify bias in crimes. At University of California San Francisco (UCSF) AI4ALL, students analyzed electronic medical records to find alternate approaches to predicting COVID-19. At University of Washington AI4ALL, organized by the Taskar Center for Accessible Technology, students focused on fairness and non-ableism in AI.

Students at UCSF AI4ALL used existing medical records to determine alternate ways of predicting COVID-19.

To support instructors, we shared a variety of curriculum and logistical materials. Sample schedules included detailed breakdowns of activities for both high synchronous learning (~6 hours online per day) and low synchronous learning (~3 hours online per day). Handbooks included detailed instructions for leading activities in virtual environments, particularly coding and discussions. Pre-recorded short lecture videos were provided to teams using flipped style classrooms. Students received structured coding and personal project notebooks to support their introductions to Python, which many students learned for the first time during the program.

Flipped style classroom: an instructional strategy that brings activities traditionally considered homework into the classroom, and moves direct instruction from the group learning space to the individual learning space.

At the end of the summer, 86% of AI4ALL students felt confident holding an informed conversation about AI, compared to 28% at the Summer Programs’ start. Most importantly, however, AI4ALL Summer Program students end the program understanding that they are the future of the AI field. Anat Caspi, Program Director at University of Washington AI4ALL, one of our first-year program sites, agrees. “I believe every single student had their voice heard, knew they were valued, and understood that there was a spot for them at the broad ‘AI table’.”

Equity and Access

In summer 2020, AI4ALL Summer Programs served 362 students globally. We collaborated with our university partners to run 14 virtual AI4ALL Summer Programs, 4 of which were new Summer Program sites for 2020.

We knew that the systemic inequities exacerbated by COVID-19 would impact our Black, Latinx, Indigenous, and students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds most heavily. So, our primary goal was to design programming that was truly inclusive, validating our students’ resilience and lived experiences. We hired Beth McBride, AI Education and Instruction Manager, who brought her extensive research and curriculum development background to the task of updating our existing curriculum for online learning.

Tahiya Salam, Program Leadership, University of Pennsylvania AI4ALL, on the necessity of diverse representation in AI.

Beth collaborated tirelessly with our university partners to ensure the AI4ALL pedagogy, content, and mode of instruction were designed around our students’ needs in a virtual learning environment. The project-based learning style centered the unique strengths and experiences of our students. Collaborative activities like group break-out sessions and virtual office hours gave students the chance to learn from and support each other as peers.

We also provided resource support to participating students, offering over $20,000 in stipends as income replacements to students who we are grateful chose to participate in our Summer Programs, despite other possible income streams. These stipends were offered in addition to whatever resource support the student already received, which varied by program and students’ needs. In addition to the tuition waivers offered by the AI4ALL Summer Programs that charge tuition, SFU AI4ALL provided laptops for all 35 participating students; and upon completion of UPenn AI4ALL, each student received a stipend for their participation.

Community-Building in a Virtual Space

AI4ALL Summer Programs hired 23 Changemakers as alumni teaching assistants this summer, providing our university partners much-needed support, while addressing the summer 2020 internship chasm opened by COVID-19.

The AI4ALL Summer Program model is unique in that each of our 16 university partners is a leader in AI development, research, and education in their own right. These programs are equipped with the AI4ALL curriculum, program design best practices, and other resources, and are encouraged to tailor the AI4ALL Summer Program to the strengths of their institutions and students. From daily morning check-ins, to home tie-dye kit deliveries and virtual game nights, university partners each brought the idea of community-building to life in their own ways. The students, like Diego M. of Princeton AI4ALL, deeply appreciated this time to connect with peers. “Every day we’d go after class and de-stress with a movie or game or something…with the after-class activities, we got to really meet each other and talk about what we were interested in. I met so many students that were amazing.”

This #AI4ALL2020, 36 high school girls participated in Simon Fraser University’s third AI4ALL Summer Program, Invent the Future, our first program offered outside the U.S.

Changemakers are encouraged to see themselves as the future of AI and are already beginning to change the AI landscape. By employing teaching assistants from our Changemakers in AI community, we were able to preserve the unique personality of each program, while offering a bridge between our 2020 Summer Program students and the faculty. By having TAs whose own AI4ALL experiences weren’t so far removed from theirs, we were able to create an environment in which students felt more comfortable asking questions, and received more personal attention, despite the virtual setting. The result was a rewarding experience for students, instructors, and Changemakers alike.

Our TA positions also enabled us to ensure our older Changemakers’ access to internships despite mass cancellations of tech internships in the wake of COVID-19. We know that access to paid internships is a key determiner of students’ long-term career success. Paid teaching assistantships ensured Changemakers like Maya D., a 2018 Princeton AI4ALL alum and 2020 Princeton AI4ALL TA, got real technical experience this summer, “working alongside the instructor leads that helped introduce [her] to the world of AI” while helping to “make AI4ALL a reality for the incoming class despite the difficulties we face this year.” We cannot thank our Changemakers and instructional teams enough for their creativity, adaptability, and commitment.

Learnings + Takeaways

Changemakers in AI, the AI4ALL alumni community, now numbers over 750 students from across the globe and in 37 states.

During AI for the Borderland, our first AI4ALL Summer Program at the University of Texas at El Paso, students learned how AI can help build systems that benefit all members of a community.

Despite the challenges and our concerns, AI4ALL successfully brought virtual education to 362 students at 14 universities across North America. While we are proud of the quality of virtual education we provided this summer, we also learned that an inclusive curriculum cannot be fully effective if our most ingenious and impacted students are not able to participate. There were accepted students that could not participate in AI4ALL this summer, lacking the hardware, connection, time, or support needed to complete the program. These are the students we are committed to reaching most. Below are a few key learnings from the summer that we are actively applying to our work moving forward.

Inclusive programming is not truly inclusive if Black and brown students are not able to participate.

  • To better refine our inclusion strategies during this continued pandemic, AI4ALL will not be recruiting new university partners in the 2021 academic year, instead focusing on how to better reach and serve these students at our current 16 Summer Program sites.

Virtual education both creates inequity and exacerbates inequities that already exist.

  • As virtual education becomes the norm, we are actively developing new ways to financially support and equip students for the virtual age. We plan to continue offering stipends and tuition waivers to students next year and beyond and will provide additional types of support as needed.

An immense amount of organization, communication, and collaboration needs to happen for a virtual program to be a great experience for students.

  • Each block of time and each detail needs to be considered, from who will be involved to how we can best make use of virtual space (break out rooms, big group discussions, individual work). A key learning that we will carry into next year is just how much planning and care it takes to organize each and every program.

Back in the spring, when the pandemic and all of its attendant challenges were in the early stages in the US, we told you that our goal was to look back on this year and be proud of the efforts we put forth for our students. By prioritizing our students’ needs, we accomplished more than even we thought possible in an incredibly challenging year. We are lucky to have worked with university partners who put so much work into their programs and the people involved. From graduate student mentors to TAs, to guest speakers, and industry panelists, to our students for sticking with us, and our partners for their unwavering support, thank you.

We’ll see you next summer!

To stay up to date on Summer Programs news, including details about application deadlines and program formats for 2021, sign up for the Summer Programs newsletter here and check out the Summer Programs webpage here.



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AI4ALL is a US nonprofit working to increase diversity and inclusion in artificial intelligence.