Stephanie working to program her mini car as part of the Stanford AI4ALL autonomous driving research project / photo credit: Lauren Yang

Bringing inclusive AI into my community

Guest Post by Stephanie Tena, Stanford AI4ALL ’17 (formerly SAILORS)

AI4ALL Editor’s note: Meet Stephanie Tena, a 2017 Stanford AI4ALL (formerly SAILORS) alumna. Below, Stephanie shares her experiences at Stanford AI4ALL and how, as a first-generation Mexican-American, she has been inspired to bring STEM education into her community of Salinas, CA since attending Stanford AI4ALL.

“Mira aquí es,” said my older sister as we drove by Synergy (the house where Stanford AI4ALL was hosted). After setting down my suitcase and saying my last goodbyes to my mom and two sisters, I nervously walked down Synergy’s stairs. Then I walked into the lively living room where 31 bright individuals conversed with excitement. I greeted everyone with a joyful smile and took a seat next to a friendly-looking girl. I said, “Hello, my name is Stephanie Tena. I’m from Salinas, California. What’s your name?” She responded by saying, “My name is Aybuke. I’m from Turkey.” I smiled more vividly and was amazed by how AI could connect individuals from other continents and parts of the world.

Coming from Salinas, a small agricultural town, I was fascinated to be able to converse with such diverse girls about AI and CS. A couple days later, I met more of my Stanford AI4ALL peers and learned they were from places like Canada, Texas, Pakistan, and even from local places like San Jose, CA. Despite our different cultures or backgrounds, all 31 of my Stanford AI4ALL peers were able to connect through our passion for AI and tech. I learned that our different cultures and backgrounds were the key to connecting and fusing our bright ideas. We brought Stanford AI4ALL to life because we created a diverse environment and brought unique ideas to the table.

Stephanie with mentors and fellow participants at Stanford AI4ALL ’17 / photo credit: Lauren Yang

Over the course of the two-week program, I was submerged in valuable AI knowledge and learned the basics of programming in Python. I was also given the opportunity to work on a research project. I was part of the autonomous car group, which worked on programming self-driving mini cars to efficiently and autonomously navigate to desired destinations.

In our group, I learned the importance of Dijkstra’s algorithm — an algorithm that finds the shortest path between two points — and how significant it (and algorithms in general) can be in the “real” world. Our final project included programming a mini-self driving car that autonomously calculates the shortest path using weights based on the principle of optimality, which states, “every subpath of an optimal path is optimal.” This principle is important for a few reasons, including the fact that it may help improve transportation and safety. Our final project wasn’t just about programming and algorithms, though. It was also a representation of how artificial intelligence’s implementation in cars has the potential to help people with injuries or disabilities get around on their own or without assistance.

Stephanie programming at Stanford AI4ALL ’17 / photo credit: Lauren Yang

In the process of programming Dijkstra’s algorithm and the autonomous car, I faced some challenges with running the code successfully. Once, my PID (Proportional, Integral, Derivative) controllers were off and needed tuning. This was crucial because the PID controllers calculate the error (desired value minus actual value) and are the feedback that improves the car’s path. I worked with our instructors, Rachael and Zach, to solve the problem by checking my current code for bugs, adding any necessary code, and finding the appropriate values that would successfully run the algorithm.

Through this project, I learned that AI can be applied to real, impactful, world-leading problems and has the potential to positively edify humanity. Through lines of code, I was able to create an algorithm that, when implemented in society, could actually change people’s lives.

From these two experiences — learning how AI can impact society and learning how to program it myself — I was inspired to connect my culture and my passion for code. Being raised in a trailer park by a farm-working single mother has made society characterize me as living below the poverty line.

Although we face economic struggles every day, such as limited hot water and electricity, I do not consider myself poor in knowledge. Becoming part of the AI4ALL community has given me the strength and power to continue following my dreams and aspirations regardless of the obstacles I have to face.
Stephanie in front of strawberry crops growing in the beautiful fields of Salinas / photo credit: Stephanie Tena

In this school year, my goal is to spread my passion and knowledge for STEM, specifically AI, to other first-generation Mexican-American children in my community who come from low-income families like I do. I would like to create an AI club at my high school that introduces and opens others’ eyes to AI and the STEM field. I would also like to aim my club towards females in order to diversify the club environment.

After Stanford AI4ALL, I recognize I have the power to utilize my knowledge and passion to motivate others. Such a goal seems more tangible, especially after hearing Dr. Fei-Fei Li’s personal story of how she overcame many obstacles such as learning English from scratch, and how, regardless of all these obstacles she faced, she followed and accomplished her passion. Her strength, determination and perseverance have made me admire her and consider her my role model.

About Stephanie

Stephanie Tena is a Mexican-American born in Salinas, CA to immigrant parents who emigrated from Michoacán, Mexico. Currently, she is a sophomore at Salinas High School. Her hobbies include exploring programming and AI, practicing martial arts, and spending time with her family. She aspires to pursue a STEM degree when she attends college.