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AI program aims to break barriers for female students| GuyWhoKnowsThings

For the past 10 months, Chelsea Prudencio, a junior at Baruch College in Manhattan, has received a crash course in artificial intelligence through a new program for young, low-income Black and Latina women majoring in computer science.

As part of the program, called Break Through Tech AI, Ms. Prudencio completed an intensive class developed by Cornell Tech faculty with input from some technology executives. She dedicated herself to an artificial intelligence student project for Pfizer to create heart disease prediction models. And a Citigroup cybersecurity executive advised her on how to succeed in technical job interviews.

These are the types of important career and learning opportunities that can help computer science specialists land jobs in rapidly evolving fields like artificial intelligence and data science. But students like Prudencio, who attend public universities that are not known for their best computer science programs, often face challenges accessing them.

“I never knew health technology before my project with Pfizer,” said Prudencio, 20, who works part-time at a tennis center. He now hopes to pursue a career in healthcare AI. “Personally, I think this is much more rewarding, because you are building models that could potentially save lives.”

Break Through Tech is at the forefront of university-led efforts to reduce barriers to technology careers for underrepresented college students, including low-income young Latina and Black women. The new AI programthe largest of its kind in the United States, takes a novel approach in a tech industry whose hiring criteria (technical interviews, hackathon wins, internal employee referrals, previous internships) often benefit wealthier students in the best universities. Its goal is to help low-income students, many of whom have part-time jobs in addition to their schoolwork, learn artificial intelligence skills, develop industry connections and participate in research projects they can discuss with job recruiters. .

Organized and supported by MIT, the University of California, Los Angeles, and Cornell Tech, the AI ​​program is free. And it is primarily intended for students attending public institutions, such as the campuses of the California State University, the City University of New York, and the University of Massachusetts systems, or minority-serving institutions, such as historically black.

Participants take an online summer course on the basics of machine learning, that is, artificial intelligence systems that teach themselves to detect patterns in data sets. Students, who receive stipends of $2,000, are also matched with professional mentors from institutions such as Columbia University and Accenture. They work on student AI challenges set by employers like Google, JPMorgan Chase, and Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.

This year, students also participated in a semester-long competition to develop artificial intelligence models to distinguish tens of thousands of digitized images of plant specimens from the New York Botanical Garden, one of the world's premier plant collections. , from other types of images such as photographs of insects. The winning models achieved an accuracy of 99 percent or better. Emily Sessa, the director of the botanic garden's herbarium, said the students' work could ultimately help botanists more effectively track the impact of climate change on specific plants over time.

“I loved working on the code and seeing the results,” said Sabreen Shigri, a computer engineering student at Stony Brook University on Long Island. Her student team, called Foxgloves, took third place in the competition. “I thought it was cool that we could use AI to help the environment,” she said.

A few weeks ago, 150 students who had just completed the AI ​​program traveled to the Botanical Gardens in the Bronx for a graduation event that included a scavenger hunt to find real flora and fauna. One of them was Saliha Demir, 20, a senior at the New York Institute of Technology on Long Island.

“I came in with almost no experience,” Demir said of the AI ​​program. Now, for his main project, he has developed artificial intelligence models to identify foods that meet more than a dozen different types of dietary restrictions, such as gluten-free diets or halal foods prepared according to Islamic dietary rules. “We are trying to create an AI that can distinguish whether a food is halal,” he said.

This summer, Ms. Demir is interning in mobile computing at an enterprise software company.

Break Through Tech's approach appears to be working, at least to one important extent: paid tech internships, a crucial career step that can lead to full-time job offers.

Last year, for example, only 36 percent of college graduates nationwide reported having completed a paid internship, according to data from the National Association of Colleges and Employers, an organization of college recruiters and career counselors. By contrast, of the nearly 150 students who completed the AI ​​program over the past two years, Break Through Tech said it had completed 82 percent in paid internships at employers including Accenture, Amazon, Fidelity, Google, Mass General Hospital and Microsoft.

In other words, the AI ​​program does not attempt to reform elitist policies. Tech industry recruiting practices. It is awarding prestigious credentials from elite institutions like Cornell and MIT to students from other schools to help them land jobs in tech jobs.

“These students are not in schools with well-known names or families that can open doors,” he said. Judith Spitz, the executive director of innovative technology. “We're just giving students the opportunity to show what they're capable of.”

Computer science remains a heavily male-dominated field. In 2022, men accounted for nearly 78 percent of bachelor's degrees awarded in computer science, while Latina and Black women combined earned just 2 percent of bachelor's degrees, according to an annual report. Computer Research Association report at universities with Ph.D. programs in the field. Similarly, at some large technology companies, only a small percentage of programmers and software engineers are Latina or Black women.

In 2016, Dr. Spitz, a former Verizon executive, started an initiative at Cornell Tech to address gender disparities. Now known as Break Through Tech, that program offers short-term paid tech internships to help computer science students gain workplace experience and industry connections.

In 2022, Break Through Tech began an effort specifically focused on expanding access to AI careers. It received $26 million in funding from donors, led by Pivotal Ventures, an investment firm founded by Melinda French Gates.

The effort is growing rapidly. In April, nearly 400 participants graduated from the AI ​​program. For the upcoming academic year, Break Through Tech has accepted nearly 1,000 students.

The program also teaches students about AI's potential for bias, such as the flawed facial recognition systems that have led to the false arrests of black men.

“As we think about both the promise and danger of AI,” said Dr. Spitz in a talk to students at the botanical garden, “who is in the room asking the hard questions about what is the definition of justice? Who can win or lose?

Criticizing AI can also carry risks. Several prominent female researchers working at Big Tech companies who raised questions about AI prejudices are I am no longer employed by those companies.

Some students said they would also like to learn how to deal with more existential questions, such as when not to use AI at all.

“We tend to overlook how people's voices can be manipulated and how dangerous AI can be,” said Ruth Okuo, a computer science student at Hunter College in Manhattan, noting that participating in the program had made her want to learn more about the potentials. Risks and harms of AI. “I want to know what the laws are or should be.”

Okuo, who works part-time at an Apple Store, said he was looking for new opportunities to further his interest in AI ethics.

As for Ms. Prudencio at Baruch, she landed a paid summer internship at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. She starts next month.

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