Why (and how) I’m working on STEM awareness + opportunity at my high school
Guest post by Priyanka Kumar, Stanford AI4ALL ’16 (formerly SAILORS)
AI4ALL Editor’s note: Meet Priyanka Kumar, a 2016 Stanford AI4ALL (formerly SAILORS) alumna who has been working to increase access to STEM opportunities at her high school since attending Stanford AI4ALL. Below, Priyanka explains how her eyes were opened to the computer science and artificial intelligence fields through a high school teacher and through Stanford AI4ALL, and how this inspired her to share this knowledge with others.
The world of artificial intelligence. Growing up in Upstate New York, this foreign world always seemed confined to the lucky members of the West Coast, whether it was through the creation of killer robots in Hollywood or from the technological geniuses of Silicon Valley.
If you had asked me what artificial intelligence was five years ago, I would have told you it was a made up concept for some sci-fi New York Times bestseller book.
My public school did not have any programs for computer science, through no fault of their own, because a majority of schools in Upstate New York did not have a focus on teaching kids about computer science. Even as my friends and I started to get our hands on iPhones and apps like Instagram and Twitter, nobody ever talked about how this technology came about — all we knew was that it somehow existed. However, the most unfortunate issue of all was the lack of awareness about the resources or opportunities to learn more about programming and technology. If even our teachers did not know about existing opportunities, how were parents and kids supposed to know about them? We may have only been 3,000 miles from the West Coast, but it was still far enough to be sheltered from and unaware of all the commotion of a growing field.
I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to go to The Hotchkiss School, a boarding school in Connecticut, for high school. My math teacher there had noticed my interest in STEM and my participation in App Club and Robotics. This was the first time I had been exposed to anything related to computer science, and I was thrilled that my new school had its very own computer science teacher. My teacher gave me a packet of STEM summer camps she had learned about, which helped me discover the then-named SAILORS program directed by Dr. Fei-Fei Li (now called Stanford AI4ALL). I decided to apply regardless of the fact that I knew next to nothing about coding and AI. Three months later, I found myself with the opportunity to spend 2 weeks with 24 girls at one of the most prestigious universities for computer science.
At the camp, I found myself surrounded by girls mostly from the Bay Area who had been programing for many years. [ed. Priyanka attended Stanford AI4ALL in the years before it became residential and more accessible to participants outside of the Bay Area.] At first, I felt confused and out of place. I didn’t understand how, at such a young age, all these girls could have had so much experience with computer science. I then learned about all the practice and experience they’d had from their parents who worked in the field — from the girls interning at a tech company to even simpler opportunities such as Codeacademy. I was astonished that for the last fifteen years I had been completely oblivious to this entire world.
Then one day at camp it suddenly hit me. I realized that I had been oblivious to this world of computer science and technology because there was no focus on it back home.
I didn’t have a parent to tell me to do this internship or that online course. I didn’t have a school that offered eight years of programming classes starting in elementary school. The fact of the matter was that I and everyone around me back home didn’t have even the slightest clue or awareness about all the possibilities we could explore. Overall, the camp taught me more than just how to code in Python and about using AI; it taught me about the importance of opportunity and about having a network of friends to support you and help you learn.
I came back to school the next year even more determined to put all the opportunities I had to use. I started online coding classes, used Codecademy, and reached out to professors at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute for internships. I also learned that it was not enough for me to just use these opportunities for myself; I had to share them with other girls who had no idea opportunities like this existed, just as I had once.
With that in mind, I spent all of last year working with my school’s faculty and administration, including my headmaster, to create a more inclusive curriculum for all students in math and science. We worked to make sure that all students from diverse genders, races, and socioeconomic backgrounds would have the awareness and funds to be able to take part in these opportunities so that they could explore their passions. We wanted to set the tone to create a school culture where everyone could succeed in STEM. We did this by creating systems for students to reach out to university professors for internships, to learn more about opportunities in STEM through a list of STEM camps, to get extra help and tutoring, and through other support systems that ensure our school is sending the message about its commitment to helping all students learn about STEM.
While I wish I had known about these opportunities earlier on, I still acknowledge how lucky I am to even have found out that opportunities to learn about AI exist at my age. Now that I have this information, I believe it is my job along with other students and professionals in computer science to share this knowledge with others who have access to fewer resources or haven’t been surrounded by the constant buzz and excitement of computer science. We have the obligation to do this so that we can educate others about our evolving technological world and provide the next generation with the information they need to find jobs in a rapidly emerging field.
AI and computer science are the future of our world, but how can we continue to move forward if only a portion of society understand or have access to it?
The Stanford AI4ALL program really did change my life and connected me with a great group of girls that I still am in touch with. Being on the East Coast might make it hard to stay in touch with them, go to monthly get-togethers with field trips and lectures, and to hear about even more opportunities or collaborations with the girls. However, the work for me is far from over. I will be presenting the final products of my work to my school’s Board of Trustees this fall and am working to create a Girls Who Code chapter here so that more girls have access to learn about coding and hearing from other women in STEM.
I encourage all of you to continue to spread your knowledge about computer science programs and help provide funding for those who cannot afford these opportunities because it really can change someone’s life. Every step we take together as a community to spread awareness, opportunity, and support brings us one step closer to having AI for all.
Priyanka Kumar is a junior at The Hotchkiss School and a Stanford AI4ALL ’16 alumna. Priyanka is co-head of her school’s math club and co-head of the Student Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee which works with the Head of School and members of the administration to encourage academic and cultural inclusion. Last year, Priyanka presented ways to make math and science curriculum more inclusive at Hotchkiss to the senior administrative team. Priyanka is also part of the school’s robotics team and co-captain of the math team, in which she came in 1st place with her team at the Connecticut State Math Competition. Priyanka was named an Ambassador to STEM by the United States Congressional Award and spent the summer working at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. In her free time, Priyanka also likes to write, sing for her school’s choir, read the news, and serve as a news editor for her school’s newspaper.