Finding community in AI and STEM
Guest post by Avantika Ghosh, SAILORS ‘16
Like many other young girls who are interested in STEM fields, I had attended several Java workshops and tech camps, founded a science club in my middle school, and avidly watched programs like PBS NOVA’s “The Rise of Robots” that showcased the DARPA robotics challenge. However, when I enrolled in the robotics club at my high school, I was asked to do Public Relations despite my previous programming experience — probably because I was a girl. It took a lot of hard work, pestering, and evidence of my coding skills to prove that I was good enough to be on the build and programming team.
So, when I was admitted to SAILORS, an outreach program on artificial intelligence (AI) targeted especially towards girls, it seemed like a dream come true.
When I was admitted, my experience in AI was limited to reading engineering and scientific magazines, so I was initially quite apprehensive of my ability to complete the projects that SAILORS described on their website. Yet, I was also excited at the prospect of getting hands-on experience in the field, visiting the Stanford AI Labs, and learning from some of the world’s best minds in AI. Once I got to SAILORS, any preconceptions that I had about computer science and programming being a mechanical set of rules were overturned, as I was introduced to the creativity of coding and its applications in the real world.
An integral part of SAILORS is the group project focused on real life ideas like the autonomous car, decoding the human genome, disaster relief, and computer vision in hospitals. I worked on using computer vision to scan images of hands washed by hospital personnel in order to identify germs and filter those images using IPython software. One of our biggest challenges was to find an accurate parameter for a filter, as there was a huge range possible. Other groups faced challenges as well. The project on decoding the genome seemed especially hard because the human genome is so complicated, with its sequence of millions of nucleotides that are impossible to track. Nevertheless, computer programming enabled the students to tag the specific nucleotide sequences that were to be identified.
My biggest takeaways from the program were a realization that we take a lot of technology around us for granted, and it is imperative that we understand the relationships between the different fields of study (arts, language, science, coding, and so on). SAILORS also expanded my understanding of the implications of AI for society and our future, aided by hearing from industry representatives. During panel discussions, industry representatives from Airbnb, Intel, Grio, Dropbox etc. encouraged conversations about entrepreneurship, gave advice about pursuing technology careers, and provided exposure to their line of work and the sacrifices required for their commitment to their careers.
SAILORS also gave me the opportunity to develop close relationships and conduct productive interactions with girls my age, who were interested in similar things like science fiction, computer science, and robotics. It really made me feel that I belonged in STEM. I especially appreciated the solidarity and the community feeling that has developed between us — not only among the girls who were in my batch of the program but the alums of the program as well. Unlike other summer programs, which require competing with students on projects, the atmosphere at SAILORS was one of collaboration, learning, education, and exposure.
SAILORS educated me not only in the field of AI and its applications, but also made me aware of the opportunities that are available to girls who are interested in pursuing the STEM fields and forged in me a determination to succeed in a STEM career. It gave me the knowledge and resources to generate awareness among my peers, most of whom have had no exposure to the field of AI or have misconceptions about it. Attending SAILORS changed how I perceive the world around me, helped me understand how it can all change in the future, and enabled me to think constructively of how this change can be a positive force in society.
Nowadays, lots of companies and universities are taking some very pro-active initiatives to bring women back into STEM fields. I am hopeful that positive images of girls in CS and programs like SAILORS that introduce us to the possibilities of science and the diversity of its applications can make women successful in STEM. The world is changing and all of us need to be ready to embrace that change.
Avantika Ghosh is a Sophomore in San Jose, California. She participated in AI4ALL’s SAILORS program in 2016. Since SAILORS, she has founded her high school’s first-ever AI Club, was awarded the San Francisco Bay Area regional NCWIT Aspirations in Computing Award 2017, and played a major role in programming the Leland Quixilver 604 robot to compete in FIRST Robotics competitions in 2017.