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MIT’s FutureMakers programs help kids get their minds around — and hands on — AI

By Kim Patch for the MIT Media Lab

Credit: FutureMakers program

As she was looking for a camp last summer, Yabesra Ewnetu, who’d just finished eighth grade, found a reference to MIT’s FutureMakers Create-a-thon. Ewnetu had heard that it’s hard to detect bias in artificial intelligence (AI) because AI algorithms are so complex, but this didn’t make sense to her. “I was like, well, we’re the ones coding it, shouldn’t we be able to see what it’s doing and explain why?” She signed up for the six-week virtual FutureMakers program so she could delve into AI herself.

Credit: Courtesy of Yabesra Ewnetu

FutureMakers is part of the MIT-wide Responsible AI for Social Empowerment and Education (RAISE) initiative launched earlier this year. RAISE is headquartered in the MIT Media Lab and run in collaboration with MIT Schwarzman College of Computing and MIT Open Learning.

MIT RAISE piloted FutureMakers to students from all over the United States last year in two formats.

During one-week, themed FutureMakers Workshops organized around key topics related to Artificial Intelligence (AI), students learn how AI technologies work, including social implications, then build something that uses AI. And during six-week summer Create-a-Thons, middle school and high school students do a deep dive into AI and coding for four weeks, then take another two weeks to design an app for social good. They learn leadership and professional development skills concurrently. The Create-a-Thon culminates in a competition where teams present their ideas and prototypes to an expert panel of judges.

“We want to remove as many barriers as we possibly can to support diverse students and teachers,” said Cynthia Breazeal, a professor of media arts and sciences at MIT who founded the Media Lab’s Personal Robots Group and also heads up the RAISE initiative. All RAISE programs are free for both educators and students. The wide range of hands-on learning activities support a range of AI topics and technologies to meet students and teachers where they are in terms of resources, comfort with technology, and interests.

“We position students as the designers of these technologies,” said Breazeal. “We create really friendly, intuitive learning tools where kids can actually learn about and make things with AI techniques that approach the state-of-the-art.”

MIT is behind the Scratch visual coding language used by millions of kids worldwide. Similarly, MIT App Inventor is a block-based coding language designed to build Android and iOS mobile apps. “We have a deep history of being able to bring computational thinking and tools to a much broader audience than people thought before,” Breazeal said. “So we’re doing that again with AI.”

But it’s not all about learning to code.

“AI is shaping our behaviors, it’s shaping the way we think, it’s shaping the way we learn, and a lot of people aren’t even aware of that,” said Breazeal. “People now need to be AI literate given how AI is rapidly changing digital literacy and digital citizenship.”

The FutureMakers programs are positioning kids to have an informed voice about how AI is used in society, and to participate in the democratic process around it. If we want a future of responsible AI designers “we need to change how we educate our young people,” Breazeal said. “We want to engage kids actively in critical thinking and reflection, and societal implications of these technologies.”

“It’s important to start early,” said Breazeal. To shape the future workforce “we have to reach kids when they’re young because even by high school they start opting out.”

The program also has an explicit diversity and inclusion method. “Right now, the field is not diverse,” Breazeal said. “And I think that’s a big part of the problem, too.”

The one-week FutureMaker Workshops are offered year-round. MIT trains teachers or people who work at STEM educational organizations so they can bring the tools and project-based hands-on curriculum and activities to their students. One year in, MIT has trained 60 teachers who have given workshops to more than 300 students, many from underserved and under-represented communities across the US. Teachers and mentors choose from among four workshop themes for their training: Conversational AI, Dancing With AI, Creativity and AI, and How to Train Your Robot.

Credit: Courtesy of Ian Son

MIT RAISE worked with Lili`uokalani Trust in Hawaii to teach the How to Train Your Robot workshop during a spring break program on the remote islands of Moloka`i and Lana`I.

“The Lili`uokalani Trust provides opportunities for Hawaiian children to realize their greatest potential,” said Lili`uokalani Trust program manager Kau`ilani Arce. “For the past seven years it has focused on sports, arts, entrepreneurship and tech as positive youth engagement tools,” she said. When the Trust visited the MIT Media Lab on an East Coast study tour and were introduced to Cynthia Breazeal, “we were immediately inspired by the vast array of AI and STEM programs and decided to pilot How to Train Your Robot,” said Arce.

The workshop introduced students to AI, image classification and algorithmic bias, and taught them to program robots using a custom block-based coding environment built using the Scratch programming language.

A program like this is exciting for these kids, who are from a remote area, said Lili`uokalani Trust Youth Development Specialist Kekama Helm. “They are motivated to learn more about AI,” she said. It’s a fairly new concept that can bring “long-term positive impact” to the community.

On the first day, “we learned about algorithmic bias and how it can lead to deeply rooted issues, such as social and racial injustices,” Arce said. “It was a wonderful opportunity to critically think about how Native Hawaiians are equally represented in algorithms we use daily.”

The most exciting moment in the week-long workshop was “watching the kamali`i turn on their robots for the first time!” she added. “Seeing the flashing lights, hearing the robots talk, and watching them spin as the kamali`i intended was breathtaking.”

The best moment for sixth-grader Yesmine Kiroloss: “When I got to program my robot!”

For students without previous AI experience, it took grit to understand the correlation between a coding environment and a functioning robot, said Arce. “There was an overwhelming sense of accomplishment.”

MIT RAISE collaborated with SureStart, a startup aimed at mentoring high school and college students in AI, to carry out the first six-week FutureMakers Create-a-thon last summer.

After jobs as an AT&T industrial researcher and as the Director of AI at Affectiva, Taniya Mishra founded SureStart to mentor the next generation of AI and emerging tech researchers, including women and those traditionally underrepresented in those areas.

Mishra traces a direct line from her success to a mentor. “The first time I saw a computer I was a sophomore at university,” said Mishra. “I was so excited about it but I had no skills to be a computer scientist,” she said. A mentor “dreamed my dreams for me before I had the vocabulary to.”

Credit: Courtesy of Shweta Narayan

The Create-a-Thon had two tracks: an MIT App Inventor & AI track with 30 students including Ewnetu, and a Deep Learning track with 45. The 78 students hailed from more than 20 states and just over two-thirds were female.

For the first four weeks students worked in groups of eight with two graduate student mentors who summarized each day’s lesson and held office hours so the students could ask questions.

A key lesson for the kids was to slow down, go step-by-step “and sometimes things don’t work out the first time,” said Bella Baidak, a mentor and first year Masters of Information student at Cornell Tech in New York City.

In the final two weeks, the students applied what they’d learned to create something with societal or environmental impact.

A key step was plotting out a minimum viable product (MVP): a web or mobile app that contained the minimum elements needed to illustrate their idea.

Teams of four students and a mentor held a brainstorming session, figured out which idea to work on, broke the idea into the user-interface and coding tasks needed to build an app, built it, and put together a presentation to show how it worked.

At the end of the six weeks 15 teams had completed projects that showed off their ideas in an entrepreneurial-style pitch competition judged by experts form academia and industry.

Team Code Blue built the facial asymmetry stroke test app (FAST), which used computer vision AI to estimate facial asymmetry as a way to detect early signs of a stroke.

Team InnovAte built the AI Spy app, which used a smartphone camera to see objects and guide visually impaired users to them.

Ewnetu’s team, Team Dyadic, built a prediction model to warn people about wildfires. The idea was inspired by a team member from California. The team bootstrapped a website, collected a data set, trained a machine language model, and added an interactive map. “Our code is a prediction of how close the current conditions are to a fire condition,” said Ewnetu, who’s now a freshman at Justice High School in Falls Church, Virginia.

The team members had a mix of experience. “There were people in the class who had a lot of [coding] experience and there were people in the class like me who had very little to no experience,” said Ewnetu. She added that the first couple weeks were difficult, and she needed a lot of help from the mentors, but then everything clicked. “It went from like an error every other line to an error maybe every other section,” she said.

Ewnetu “is the perfect embodiment of what happens when you just provide people with support,” said Mishra. “[Having] high expectations is a good thing, especially if you can provide a lot of scaffolding.”

The night before they presented their model, “we were together until 11 at night finishing things and making some last preparations,” said Ewnetu. It paid off — the team made the finals. “To see all of our work culminate and then pay off just made us feel like winners,” she said. “Everyone was really proud of our thoughts, our ideas.”

Baidak mentored Team Youth of Tech, which included Netra Rameshbabu, now a freshman at Matea Valley High School in Aurora, Illinois.

Credit: Courtesy of Netra Rameshbabu

After the brainstorming session, “we had a lot of ideas — a jam board of things we wanted to do,” said Rameshbabu. There were a few topics that the ideas fell under, she said. They first chose a topic, mental health, and then decided to build a parent-child communication app that they dubbed Vividly.

The app allows parents to type questions for their child into the Vividly account. When the child logs in, the app asks if they’re happy, sad, frustrated or angry. Then a bot named Viviana asks the questions, and the child communicates with the bot, knowing the parents can see the conversation.

The idea is to give kids a way to be open with their parents in a very comfortable environment, said Baidak. “It’s a form of facilitating better communication so they can talk more,” said Rameshbabu. “Our idea was to make this a routine, like brushing your teeth.”

Team Youth of Tech made the finals, then won. “I put in all that effort just to be satisfied that I presented in front of [the] judges,” said Rameshbabu. When they announced Team Youth “I was screaming I was so excited! I was in tears. I was in joy.”

The mentees did “a brilliant job,” said Kunjal Panchal, head mentor and PhD student at UMass Amherst. “They know how to use AI and they know how to use it for the common good.”

This year’s six-week FutureMakers program starts July 6. Middle, high school and undergraduate students can apply here.

Teachers can reach out to MIT RAISE to learn about the one-week training workshops.

MIT RAISE is also offering a new program in collaboration with i2Learning, called the Day of AI. Students and their teachers from all over the country can learn about AI literacy through a modular, hands-on curriculum that supports up to four hours of learning per grade track.

The Day of AI format can be taught by teachers with a wide range of technology backgrounds and is designed to be accessible to all students, including those without technology experience.

This year’s Day of AI, on May 13, includes teaching materials for upper elementary through high school. The program will eventually span all of K-12. Teachers can register here for a two-hour Day of AI teacher training program. Teaching materials are available under a Creative Commons license.

For this year’s Day of AI, upper elementary track students in grades 3 to 5 will learn about data sets, algorithms, predictions and bias, and will create an AI application that can tell the difference, say, between an image of a dog and that of a cat. Middle School students will learn about generative adversarial networks (GANs), which can produce both deepfakes, and art. And High School students will learn about the recommendation systems used by social media and their implications for individuals and for society. Students and their teachers can register here to participate.

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The MIT Media Lab is one of the world’s leading research and academic organizations, where designers, engineers, artists, and scientists strive to create technologies and experiences that enable people to understand and transform their lives, communities, and environments.

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