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    “We offer another place for knowledge”

    In the Dzaleka Refugee Camp in Malawi, Jospin Hassan didn’t have access to the education opportunities he sought. So, he decided to create his own. 

    Hassan knew the booming fields of data science and artificial intelligence could bring job opportunities to his community and help solve local challenges. After earning a spot in the 2020-21 cohort of the Certificate Program in Computer and Data Science from MIT Refugee Action Hub (ReACT), Hassan started sharing MIT knowledge and skills with other motivated learners in Dzaleka.

    MIT ReACT is now Emerging Talent, part of the Jameel World Education Lab (J-WEL) at MIT Open Learning. Currently serving its fifth cohort of global learners, Emerging Talent’s year-long certificate program incorporates high-quality computer science and data analysis coursework from MITx, professional skill building, experiential learning, apprenticeship work, and opportunities for networking with MIT’s global community of innovators. Hassan’s cohort honed their leadership skills through interactive online workshops with J-WEL and the 10-week online MIT Innovation Leadership Bootcamp. 

    “My biggest takeaway was networking, collaboration, and learning from each other,” Hassan says.

    Today, Hassan’s organization ADAI Circle offers mentorship and education programs for youth and other job seekers in the Dzaleka Refugee Camp. The curriculum encourages hands-on learning and collaboration.

    Launched in 2020, ADAI Circle aims to foster job creation and reduce poverty in Malawi through technology and innovation. In addition to their classes in data science, AI, software development, and hardware design, their Innovation Hub offers internet access to anyone in need. 

    Doing something different in the community

    Hassan first had the idea for his organization in 2018 when he reached a barrier in his own education journey. There were several programs in the Dzaleka Refugee Camp teaching learners how to code websites and mobile apps, but Hassan felt that they were limited in scope. 

    “We had good devices and internet access,” he says, “but I wanted to learn something new.” 

    Teaming up with co-founder Patrick Byamasu, Hassan and Byamasu set their sights on the longevity of AI and how that might create more jobs for people in their community. “The world is changing every day, and data scientists are in a higher demand today in various companies,” Hassan says. “For this reason, I decided to expand and share the knowledge that I acquired with my fellow refugees and the surrounding villages.”

    ADAI Circle draws inspiration from Hassan’s own experience with MIT Emerging Talent coursework, community, and training opportunities. For example, the MIT Bootcamps model is now standard practice for ADAI Circle’s annual hackathon. Hassan first introduced the hackathon to ADAI Circle students as part of his final experiential learning project of the Emerging Talent certificate program. 

    ADAI Circle’s annual hackathon is now an interactive — and effective — way to select students who will most benefit from its programs. The local schools’ curricula, Hassan says, might not provide enough of an academic challenge. “We can’t teach everyone and accommodate everyone because there are a lot of schools,” Hassan says, “but we offer another place for knowledge.” 

    The hackathon helps students develop data science and robotics skills. Before they start coding, students have to convince ADAI Circle teachers that their designs are viable, answering questions like, “What problem are you solving?” and “How will this help the community?” A community-oriented mindset is just as important to the curriculum.

    In addition to the practical skills Hassan gained from Emerging Talent, he leveraged the program’s network to help his community. Thanks to a social media connection Hassan made with the nongovernmental organization Give Internet after one of Emerging Talent’s virtual events, Give Internet brought internet access to ADAI Circle.

    Bridging the AI gap to unmet communities

    In 2023, ADAI Circle connected with another MIT Open Learning program, Responsible AI for Social Empowerment and Education (RAISE), which led to a pilot test of a project-based AI curriculum for middle school students. The Responsible AI for Computational Action (RAICA) curriculum equipped ADAI Circle students with AI skills for chatbots and natural language processing. 

    “I liked that program because it was based on what we’re teaching at the center,” Hassan says, speaking of his organization’s mission of bridging the AI gap to reach unmet communities.

    The RAICA curriculum was designed by education experts at MIT Scheller Teacher Education Program (STEP Lab) and AI experts from MIT Personal Robots group and MIT App Inventor. ADAI Circle teachers gave detailed feedback about the pilot to the RAICA team. During weekly meetings with Glenda Stump, education research scientist for RAICA and J-WEL, and Angela Daniel, teacher development specialist for RAICA, the teachers discussed their experiences, prepared for upcoming lessons, and translated the learning materials in real time. 

    “We are trying to create a curriculum that’s accessible worldwide and to students who typically have little or no access to technology,” says Mary Cate Gustafson-Quiett, curriculum design manager at STEP Lab and project manager for RAICA. “Working with ADAI and students in a refugee camp challenged us to design in more culturally and technologically inclusive ways.”

    Gustafson-Quiett says the curriculum feedback from ADAI Circle helped inform how RAICA delivers teacher development resources to accommodate learning environments with limited internet access. “They also exposed places where our team’s western ideals, specifically around individualism, crept into activities in the lesson and contrasted with their more communal cultural beliefs,” she says.

    Eager to introduce more MIT-developed AI resources, Hassan also shared MIT RAISE’s Day of AI curricula with ADAI Circle teachers. The new ChatGPT module gave students the chance to level up their chatbot programming skills that they gained from the RAICA module. Some of the advanced students are taking initiative to use ChatGPT API to create their own projects in education.

    “We don’t want to tell them what to do, we want them to come up with their own ideas,” Hassan says.

    Although ADAI Circle faces many challenges, Hassan says his team is addressing them one by one. Last year, they didn’t have electricity in their Innovation Hub, but they solved that. This year, they achieved a stable internet connection that’s one of the fastest in Malawi. Next up, they are hoping to secure more devices for their students, create more jobs, and add additional hubs throughout the community. The work is never done, but Hassan is starting to see the impact that ADAI Circle is making. 

    “For those who want to learn data science, let’s let them learn,” Hassan says. More

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    Learning how to learn

    Suppose you need to be on today’s only ferry to Martha’s Vineyard, which leaves at 2 p.m. It takes about 30 minutes (on average) to drive from where you are to the terminal. What time should you leave?

    This is one of many common real-life examples used by Richard “Dick” Larson, a post-tenure professor in the MIT Institute for Data, Systems, and Society (IDSS), to explore exemplary problem-solving in his new book “Model Thinking for Everyday Life: How to Make Smarter Decisions.”

    Larson’s book synthesizes a lifelong career as an MIT professor and researcher, highlighting crucial skills underpinning all empirical, rational, and critical thinking. “Critical thinkers are energetic detectives … always seeking the facts,” he says. “Additional facts may surface that can result in modified conclusions … A critical thinker is aware of the pitfalls of human intuition.”

    For Larson, “model” thinking means not only thinking aided by conceptual and/or mathematical models, but a broader mode of critical thought that is informed by STEM concepts and worthy of emulation.

    In the ferry example, a key concept at play is uncertainty. Accounting for uncertainty is a core challenge faced by systems engineers, operations researchers, and modelers of complex networks — all hats Larson has worn in over half a century at MIT. 

    Uncertainty complicates all prediction and decision-making, and while statistics offers tactics for managing uncertainty, “Model Thinking” is not a math textbook. There are equations for the math-curious, but it doesn’t take a degree from MIT to understand that

    an average of 30 minutes would cover a range of times, some shorter, some longer;
    outliers can exist in the data, like the time construction traffic added an additional 30 minutes
    “about 30 minutes” is a prediction based on past experience, not current information (road closures, accidents, etc.); and
    the consequence for missing the ferry is not a delay of hours, but a full day — which might completely disrupt the trip or its purpose.
    And so, without doing much explicit math, you calculate variables, weigh the likelihood of different outcomes against the consequences of failure, and choose a departure time. Larson’s conclusion is one championed by dads everywhere: Leave on the earlier side, just in case. 

    “The world’s most important, invisible profession”

    Throughout Larson’s career at MIT, he has focused on the science of solving problems and making better decisions. “Faced with a new problem, people often lack the ability to frame and formulate it using basic principles,” argues Larson. “Our emphasis is on problem framing and formulation, with mathematics and physics playing supporting roles.”

    This is operations research, which Larson calls “the world’s most important invisible profession.” Formalized as a field during World War II, operations researchers use data and models to try to derive the “physics” of complex systems. The goal is typically optimizing things like scheduling, routing, simulation, prediction, planning, logistics, and queueing, for which Larson is especially well-known. A frequent media expert on the subject, he earned the moniker “Dr. Q” — and his research has led to new approaches for easing congestion in urban traffic, fast-food lines, and banks.

    Larson’s experience with complex systems provides a wealth of examples to draw on, but he is keen to demonstrate that his purview includes everyday decisions, and that “Model Thinking” is a book for everyone. 

    “Everybody uses models, whether they realize it or not,” he says. “If you have a bunch of errands to do, and you try to plan out the order to do them so you don’t have to drive as much, that’s more or less the ‘traveling salesman’ problem, a classic from operations research. Or when someone is shopping for groceries and thinking about how much of each product they need — they’re basically using an inventory management model of their pantry.”

    Larson’s takeaway is that since we all use conceptual models for thinking, planning, and decision-making, then understanding how our minds use models, and learning to use them more intentionally, can lead to clearer thinking, better planning, and smarter decision-making — especially when they are grounded in principles drawn from math and physics.

    Passion for the process

    Teaching STEM principles has long been a mission of Larson’s, who co-founded MIT BLOSSOMS (Blended Learning Open Source Science or Math Studies) with his late wife, Mary Elizabeth Murray. BLOSSOMS provides free, interactive STEM lessons and videos for primary school students around the world. Some of the exercises in “Model Thinking” refer to these videos as well.

    “A child’s educational opportunities shouldn’t be limited by where they were born or the wealth of their parents,” says Larson of the enterprise. 

    It was also Murray who encouraged Larson to write “Model Thinking.” “She saw how excited I was about it,” he says. “I had the choice of writing a textbook on queuing, say, or something else. It didn’t excite me at all.”

    Larson’s passion is for the process, not the answer. Throughout the book, he marks off opportunities for active learning with an icon showing the two tools necessary to complete each task: a sharpened pencil and a blank sheet of paper. 

    “Many of us in the age of instant Google searches have lost the ability — or perhaps the patience — to undertake multistep problems,” he argues.

    Model thinkers, on the other hand, understand and remember solutions better for having thought through the steps, and can better apply what they’ve learned to future problems. Larson’s “homework” is to do critical thinking, not just read about it. By working through thought experiments and scenarios, readers can achieve a deeper understanding of concepts like selection bias, random incidence, and orders of magnitude, all of which can present counterintuitive examples to the uninitiated.

    For Larson, who jokes that he is “an evangelist for models,” there is no better way to learn than by doing — except perhaps to teach. “Teaching a difficult topic is our best way to learn it ourselves, is an unselfish act, and bonds the teacher and learner,” he writes.

    In his long career as an educator and education advocate, Larson says he has always remained a learner himself. His love for learning illuminates every page of “Model Thinking,” which he hopes will provide others with the enjoyment and satisfaction that comes from learning new things and solving complex problems.

    “You will learn how to learn,” Larson says. “And you will enjoy it!” More

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    Day of AI curriculum meets the moment

    MIT Responsible AI for Social Empowerment and Education (RAISE) recently celebrated the second annual Day of AI with two flagship local events. The Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the U.S. Senate in Boston hosted a human rights and data policy-focused event that was streamed worldwide. Dearborn STEM Academy in Roxbury, Massachusetts, hosted a student workshop in collaboration with Amazon Future Engineer. With over 8,000 registrations across all 50 U.S. states and 108 countries in 2023, participation in Day of AI has more than doubled since its inaugural year.

    Day of AI is a free curriculum of lessons and hands-on activities designed to teach kids of all ages and backgrounds the basics and responsible use of artificial intelligence, designed by researchers at MIT RAISE. This year, resources were available for educators to run at any time and in any increments they chose. The curriculum included five new modules to address timely topics like ChatGPT in School, Teachable Machines, AI and Social Media, Data Science and Me, and more. A collaboration with the International Society for Technology in Education also introduced modules for early elementary students. Educators across the world shared photos, videos, and stories of their students’ engagement, expressing excitement and even relief over the accessible lessons.

    Professor Cynthia Breazeal, director of RAISE, dean for digital learning at MIT, and head of the MIT Media Lab’s Personal Robots research group, said, “It’s been a year of extraordinary advancements in AI, and with that comes necessary conversations and concerns about who and what this technology is for. With our Day of AI events, we want to celebrate the teachers and students who are putting in the work to make sure that AI is for everyone.”

    Reflecting community values and protecting digital citizens

    Play video

    On May 18, 2023, MIT RAISE hosted a global Day of AI celebration featuring a flagship local event focused on human rights and data policy at the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the U.S. Senate. Students from the Warren Prescott Middle School and New Mission High School heard from speakers the City of Boston, Liberty Mutual, and MIT to discuss the many benefits and challenges of artificial intelligence education. Video: MIT Open Learning

    MIT President Sally Kornbluth welcomed students from Warren Prescott Middle School and New Mission High School to the Day of AI program at the Edward M. Kennedy Institute. Kornbluth reflected on the exciting potential of AI, along with the ethical considerations society needs to be responsible for.

    “AI has the potential to do all kinds of fantastic things, including driving a car, helping us with the climate crisis, improving health care, and designing apps that we can’t even imagine yet. But what we have to make sure it doesn’t do is cause harm to individuals, to communities, to us — society as a whole,” she said.

    This theme resonated with each of the event speakers, whose jobs spanned the sectors of education, government, and business. Yo Deshpande, technologist for the public realm, and Michael Lawrence Evans, program director of new urban mechanics from the Boston Mayor’s Office, shared how Boston thinks about using AI to improve city life in ways that are “equitable, accessible, and delightful.” Deshpande said, “We have the opportunity to explore not only how AI works, but how using AI can line up with our values, the way we want to be in the world, and the way we want to be in our community.”

    Adam L’Italien, chief innovation officer at Liberty Mutual Insurance (one of Day of AI’s founding sponsors), compared our present moment with AI technologies to the early days of personal computers and internet connection. “Exposure to emerging technologies can accelerate progress in the world and in your own lives,” L’Italien said, while recognizing that the AI development process needs to be inclusive and mitigate biases.

    Human policies for artificial intelligence

    So how does society address these human rights concerns about AI? Marc Aidinoff ’21, former White House Office of Science and Technology Policy chief of staff, led a discussion on how government policy can influence the parameters of how technology is developed and used, like the Blueprint for an AI Bill of Rights. Aidinoff said, “The work of building the world you want to see is far harder than building the technical AI system … How do you work with other people and create a collective vision for what we want to do?” Warren Prescott Middle School students described how AI could be used to solve problems that humans couldn’t. But they also shared their concerns that AI could affect data privacy, learning deficits, social media addiction, job displacement, and propaganda.

    In a mock U.S. Senate trial activity designed by Daniella DiPaola, PhD student at the MIT Media Lab, the middle schoolers investigated what rights might be undermined by AI in schools, hospitals, law enforcement, and corporations. Meanwhile, New Mission High School students workshopped the ideas behind bill S.2314, the Social Media Addiction Reduction Technology (SMART) Act, in an activity designed by Raechel Walker, graduate research assistant in the Personal Robots Group, and Matt Taylor, research assistant at the Media Lab. They discussed what level of control could or should be introduced at the parental, educational, and governmental levels to reduce the risks of internet addiction.

    “Alexa, how do I program AI?”

    Play video

    The 2023 Day of AI celebration featured a flagship local event at the Dearborn STEM Academy in Roxbury in collaboration with Amazon Future Engineer. Students participated in a hands-on activity using MIT App Inventor as part of Day of AI’s Alexa lesson. Video: MIT Open Learning

    At Dearborn STEM Academy, Amazon Future Engineer helped students work through the Intro to Voice AI curriculum module in real-time. Students used MIT App Inventor to code basic commands for Alexa. In an interview with WCVB, Principal Darlene Marcano said, “It’s important that we expose our students to as many different experiences as possible. The students that are participating are on track to be future computer scientists and engineers.”

    Breazeal told Dearborn students, “We want you to have an informed voice about how you want AI to be used in society. We want you to feel empowered that you can shape the world. You can make things with AI to help make a better world and a better community.”

    Rohit Prasad ’08, senior vice president and head scientist for Alexa at Amazon, and Victor Reinoso ’97, global director of philanthropic education initiatives at Amazon, also joined the event. “Amazon and MIT share a commitment to helping students discover a world of possibilities through STEM and AI education,” said Reinoso. “There’s a lot of current excitement around the technological revolution with generative AI and large language models, so we’re excited to help students explore careers of the future and navigate the pathways available to them.” To highlight their continued investment in the local community and the school program, Amazon donated a $25,000 Innovation and Early College Pathways Program Grant to the Boston Public School system.

    Day of AI down under

    Not only was the Day of AI program widely adopted across the globe, Australian educators were inspired to adapt their own regionally specific curriculum. An estimated 161,000 AI professionals will be needed in Australia by 2030, according to the National Artificial Intelligence Center in the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO), an Australian government agency and Day of AI Australia project partner. CSIRO worked with the University of New South Wales to develop supplementary educational resources on AI ethics and machine learning. Day of AI Australia reached 85,000 students at 400-plus secondary schools this year, sparking curiosity in the next generation of AI experts.

    The interest in AI is accelerating as fast as the technology is being developed. Day of AI offers a unique opportunity for K-12 students to shape our world’s digital future and their own.

    “I hope that some of you will decide to be part of this bigger effort to help us figure out the best possible answers to questions that are raised by AI,” Kornbluth told students at the Edward M. Kennedy Institute. “We’re counting on you, the next generation, to learn how AI works and help make sure it’s for everyone.” More

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    3 Questions: Leo Anthony Celi on ChatGPT and medicine

    Launched in November 2022, ChatGPT is a chatbot that can not only engage in human-like conversation, but also provide accurate answers to questions in a wide range of knowledge domains. The chatbot, created by the firm OpenAI, is based on a family of “large language models” — algorithms that can recognize, predict, and generate text based on patterns they identify in datasets containing hundreds of millions of words.

    In a study appearing in PLOS Digital Health this week, researchers report that ChatGPT performed at or near the passing threshold of the U.S. Medical Licensing Exam (USMLE) — a comprehensive, three-part exam that doctors must pass before practicing medicine in the United States. In an editorial accompanying the paper, Leo Anthony Celi, a principal research scientist at MIT’s Institute for Medical Engineering and Science, a practicing physician at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, and an associate professor at Harvard Medical School, and his co-authors argue that ChatGPT’s success on this exam should be a wake-up call for the medical community.

    Q: What do you think the success of ChatGPT on the USMLE reveals about the nature of the medical education and evaluation of students? 

    A: The framing of medical knowledge as something that can be encapsulated into multiple choice questions creates a cognitive framing of false certainty. Medical knowledge is often taught as fixed model representations of health and disease. Treatment effects are presented as stable over time despite constantly changing practice patterns. Mechanistic models are passed on from teachers to students with little emphasis on how robustly those models were derived, the uncertainties that persist around them, and how they must be recalibrated to reflect advances worthy of incorporation into practice. 

    ChatGPT passed an examination that rewards memorizing the components of a system rather than analyzing how it works, how it fails, how it was created, how it is maintained. Its success demonstrates some of the shortcomings in how we train and evaluate medical students. Critical thinking requires appreciation that ground truths in medicine continually shift, and more importantly, an understanding how and why they shift.

    Q: What steps do you think the medical community should take to modify how students are taught and evaluated?  

    A: Learning is about leveraging the current body of knowledge, understanding its gaps, and seeking to fill those gaps. It requires being comfortable with and being able to probe the uncertainties. We fail as teachers by not teaching students how to understand the gaps in the current body of knowledge. We fail them when we preach certainty over curiosity, and hubris over humility.  

    Medical education also requires being aware of the biases in the way medical knowledge is created and validated. These biases are best addressed by optimizing the cognitive diversity within the community. More than ever, there is a need to inspire cross-disciplinary collaborative learning and problem-solving. Medical students need data science skills that will allow every clinician to contribute to, continually assess, and recalibrate medical knowledge.

    Q: Do you see any upside to ChatGPT’s success in this exam? Are there beneficial ways that ChatGPT and other forms of AI can contribute to the practice of medicine? 

    A: There is no question that large language models (LLMs) such as ChatGPT are very powerful tools in sifting through content beyond the capabilities of experts, or even groups of experts, and extracting knowledge. However, we will need to address the problem of data bias before we can leverage LLMs and other artificial intelligence technologies. The body of knowledge that LLMs train on, both medical and beyond, is dominated by content and research from well-funded institutions in high-income countries. It is not representative of most of the world.

    We have also learned that even mechanistic models of health and disease may be biased. These inputs are fed to encoders and transformers that are oblivious to these biases. Ground truths in medicine are continuously shifting, and currently, there is no way to determine when ground truths have drifted. LLMs do not evaluate the quality and the bias of the content they are being trained on. Neither do they provide the level of uncertainty around their output. But the perfect should not be the enemy of the good. There is tremendous opportunity to improve the way health care providers currently make clinical decisions, which we know are tainted with unconscious bias. I have no doubt AI will deliver its promise once we have optimized the data input. More

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    Gaining real-world industry experience through Break Through Tech AI at MIT

    Taking what they learned conceptually about artificial intelligence and machine learning (ML) this year, students from across the Greater Boston area had the opportunity to apply their new skills to real-world industry projects as part of an experiential learning opportunity offered through Break Through Tech AI at MIT.

    Hosted by the MIT Schwarzman College of Computing, Break Through Tech AI is a pilot program that aims to bridge the talent gap for women and underrepresented genders in computing fields by providing skills-based training, industry-relevant portfolios, and mentoring to undergraduate students in regional metropolitan areas in order to position them more competitively for careers in data science, machine learning, and artificial intelligence.

    “Programs like Break Through Tech AI gives us opportunities to connect with other students and other institutions, and allows us to bring MIT’s values of diversity, equity, and inclusion to the learning and application in the spaces that we hold,” says Alana Anderson, assistant dean of diversity, equity, and inclusion for the MIT Schwarzman College of Computing.

    The inaugural cohort of 33 undergraduates from 18 Greater Boston-area schools, including Salem State University, Smith College, and Brandeis University, began the free, 18-month program last summer with an eight-week, online skills-based course to learn the basics of AI and machine learning. Students then split into small groups in the fall to collaborate on six machine learning challenge projects presented to them by MathWorks, MIT-IBM Watson AI Lab, and Replicate. The students dedicated five hours or more each week to meet with their teams, teaching assistants, and project advisors, including convening once a month at MIT, while juggling their regular academic course load with other daily activities and responsibilities.

    The challenges gave the undergraduates the chance to help contribute to actual projects that industry organizations are working on and to put their machine learning skills to the test. Members from each organization also served as project advisors, providing encouragement and guidance to the teams throughout.

    “Students are gaining industry experience by working closely with their project advisors,” says Aude Oliva, director of strategic industry engagement at the MIT Schwarzman College of Computing and the MIT director of the MIT-IBM Watson AI Lab. “These projects will be an add-on to their machine learning portfolio that they can share as a work example when they’re ready to apply for a job in AI.”

    Over the course of 15 weeks, teams delved into large-scale, real-world datasets to train, test, and evaluate machine learning models in a variety of contexts.

    In December, the students celebrated the fruits of their labor at a showcase event held at MIT in which the six teams gave final presentations on their AI projects. The projects not only allowed the students to build up their AI and machine learning experience, it helped to “improve their knowledge base and skills in presenting their work to both technical and nontechnical audiences,” Oliva says.

    For a project on traffic data analysis, students got trained on MATLAB, a programming and numeric computing platform developed by MathWorks, to create a model that enables decision-making in autonomous driving by predicting future vehicle trajectories. “It’s important to realize that AI is not that intelligent. It’s only as smart as you make it and that’s exactly what we tried to do,” said Brandeis University student Srishti Nautiyal as she introduced her team’s project to the audience. With companies already making autonomous vehicles from planes to trucks a reality, Nautiyal, a physics and mathematics major, shared that her team was also highly motivated to consider the ethical issues of the technology in their model for the safety of passengers, drivers, and pedestrians.

    Using census data to train a model can be tricky because they are often messy and full of holes. In a project on algorithmic fairness for the MIT-IBM Watson AI Lab, the hardest task for the team was having to clean up mountains of unorganized data in a way where they could still gain insights from them. The project — which aimed to create demonstration of fairness applied on a real dataset to evaluate and compare effectiveness of different fairness interventions and fair metric learning techniques — could eventually serve as an educational resource for data scientists interested in learning about fairness in AI and using it in their work, as well as to promote the practice of evaluating the ethical implications of machine learning models in industry.

    Other challenge projects included an ML-assisted whiteboard for nontechnical people to interact with ready-made machine learning models, and a sign language recognition model to help disabled people communicate with others. A team that worked on a visual language app set out to include over 50 languages in their model to increase access for the millions of people that are visually impaired throughout the world. According to the team, similar apps on the market currently only offer up to 23 languages. 

    Throughout the semester, students persisted and demonstrated grit in order to cross the finish line on their projects. With the final presentations marking the conclusion of the fall semester, students will return to MIT in the spring to continue their Break Through Tech AI journey to tackle another round of AI projects. This time, the students will work with Google on new machine learning challenges that will enable them to hone their AI skills even further with an eye toward launching a successful career in AI. More

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    Empowering Cambridge youth through data activism

    For over 40 years, the Mayor’s Summer Youth Employment Program (MSYEP, or the Mayor’s Program) in Cambridge, Massachusetts, has been providing teenagers with their first work experience, but 2022 brought a new offering. Collaborating with MIT’s Personal Robots research group (PRG) and Responsible AI for Social Empowerment and Education (RAISE) this summer, MSYEP created a STEAM-focused learning site at the Institute. Eleven students joined the program to learn coding and programming skills through the lens of “Data Activism.”

    MSYEP’s partnership with MIT provides an opportunity for Cambridge high schoolers to gain exposure to more pathways for their future careers and education. The Mayor’s Program aims to respect students’ time and show the value of their work, so participants are compensated with an hourly wage as they learn workforce skills at MSYEP worksites. In conjunction with two ongoing research studies at MIT, PRG and RAISE developed the six-week Data Activism curriculum to equip students with critical-thinking skills so they feel prepared to utilize data science to challenge social injustice and empower their community.

    Rohan Kundargi, K-12 Community Outreach Administrator for MIT Office of Government and Community Relations (OGCR), says, “I see this as a model for a new type of partnership between MIT and Cambridge MSYEP. Specifically, an MIT research project that involves students from Cambridge getting paid to learn, research, and develop their own skills!”

    Cross-Cambridge collaboration

    Cambridge’s Office of Workforce Development initially contacted MIT OGCR about hosting a potential MSYEP worksite that taught Cambridge teens how to code. When Kundargi reached out to MIT pK-12 collaborators, MIT PRG’s graduate research assistant Raechel Walker proposed the Data Activism curriculum. Walker defines “data activism” as utilizing data, computing, and art to analyze how power operates in the world, challenge power, and empathize with people who are oppressed.

    Walker says, “I wanted students to feel empowered to incorporate their own expertise, talents, and interests into every activity. In order for students to fully embrace their academic abilities, they must remain comfortable with bringing their full selves into data activism.”

    As Kundargi and Walker recruited students for the Data Activism learning site, they wanted to make sure the cohort of students — the majority of whom are individuals of color — felt represented at MIT and felt they had the agency for their voice to be heard. “The pioneers in this field are people who look like them,” Walker says, speaking of well-known data activists Timnit Gebru, Rediet Abebe, and Joy Buolamwini.

    When the program began this summer, some of the students were not aware of the ways data science and artificial intelligence exacerbate systemic oppression in society, or some of the tools currently being used to mitigate those societal harms. As a result, Walker says, the students wanted to learn more about discriminatory design in every aspect of life. They were also interested in creating responsible machine learning algorithms and AI fairness metrics.

    A different side of STEAM

    The development and execution of the Data Activism curriculum contributed to Walker’s and postdoc Xiaoxue Du’s respective research at PRG. Walker is studying AI education, specifically creating and teaching data activism curricula for minoritized communities. Du’s research explores processes, assessments, and curriculum design that prepares educators to use, adapt, and integrate AI literacy curricula. Additionally, her research targets how to leverage more opportunities for students with diverse learning needs.

    The Data Activism curriculum utilizes a “libertatory computing” framework, a term Walker coined in her position paper with Professor Cynthia Breazeal, director of MIT RAISE, dean for digital learning, and head of PRG, and Eman Sherif, a then-undergraduate researcher from University of California at San Diego, titled “Liberty Computing for African American Students.” This framework ensures that students, especially minoritized students, acquire a sound racial identity, critical consciousness, collective obligation, liberation centered academic/achievement identity, as well as the activism skills to use computing to transform a multi-layered system of barriers in which racism persists. Walker says, “We encouraged students to demonstrate competency in every pillar because all of the pillars are interconnected and build upon each other.”

    Walker developed a series of interactive coding and project-based activities that focused on understanding systemic racism, utilizing data science to analyze systemic oppression, data drawing, responsible machine learning, how racism can be embedded into AI, and different AI fairness metrics.

    This was the students’ first time learning how to create data visualizations using the programming language Python and the data analysis tool Pandas. In one project meant to examine how different systems of oppression can affect different aspects of students’ own identities, students created datasets with data from their respective intersectional identities. Another activity highlighted African American achievements, where students analyzed two datasets about African American scientists, activists, artists, scholars, and athletes. Using the data visualizations, students then created zines about the African Americans who inspired them.

    RAISE hired Olivia Dias, Sophia Brady, Lina Henriquez, and Zeynep Yalcin through the MIT Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program (UROP) and PRG hired freelancer Matt Taylor to work with Walker on developing the curriculum and designing interdisciplinary experience projects. Walker and the four undergraduate researchers constructed an intersectional data analysis activity about different examples of systemic oppression. PRG also hired three high school students to test activities and offer insights about making the curriculum engaging for program participants. Throughout the program, the Data Activism team taught students in small groups, continually asked students how to improve each activity, and structured each lesson based on the students’ interests. Walker says Dias, Brady, Henriquez, and Yalcin were invaluable to cultivating a supportive classroom environment and helping students complete their projects.

    Cambridge Rindge and Latin School senior Nina works on her rubber block stamp that depicts the importance of representation in media and greater representation in the tech industry.

    Photo: Katherine Ouellette

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    Student Nina says, “It’s opened my eyes to a different side of STEM. I didn’t know what ‘data’ meant before this program, or how intersectionality can affect AI and data.” Before MSYEP, Nina took Intro to Computer Science and AP Computer Science, but she has been coding since Girls Who Code first sparked her interest in middle school. “The community was really nice. I could talk with other girls. I saw there needs to be more women in STEM, especially in coding.” Now she’s interested in applying to colleges with strong computer science programs so she can pursue a coding-related career.

    From MSYEP to the mayor’s office

    Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui visited the Data Activism learning site on Aug. 9, accompanied by Breazeal. A graduate of MSYEP herself, Siddiqui says, “Through hands-on learning through computer programming, Cambridge high school students have the unique opportunity to see themselves as data scientists. Students were able learn ways to combat discrimination that occurs through artificial intelligence.” In an Instagram post, Siddiqui also said, “I had a blast visiting the students and learning about their projects.”

    Students worked on an activity that asked them to envision how data science might be used to support marginalized communities. They transformed their answers into block-printed T-shirt designs, carving pictures of their hopes into rubber block stamps. Some students focused on the importance of data privacy, like Jacob T., who drew a birdcage to represent data stored and locked away by third party apps. He says, “I want to open that cage and restore my data to myself and see what can be done with it.”

    The subject of Cambridge Community Charter School student Jacob T.’s project was the importance of data privacy. For his T-shirt design, he drew a birdcage to represent data stored and locked away by third party apps. (From right to left:) Breazeal, Jacob T. Kiki, Raechel Walker, and Zeynep Yalcin.

    Photo: Katherine Ouellette

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    Many students wanted to see more representation in both the media they consume and across various professional fields. Nina talked about the importance of representation in media and how that could contribute to greater representation in the tech industry, while Kiki talked about encouraging more women to pursue STEM fields. Jesmin said, “I wanted to show that data science is accessible to everyone, no matter their origin or language you speak. I wrote ‘hello’ in Bangla, Arabic, and English, because I speak all three languages and they all resonate with me.”

    Student Jesmin (left) explains the concept of her T-shirt design to Mayor Siddiqui. She wants data science to be accessible to everyone, no matter their origin or language, so she drew a globe and wrote ‘hello’ in the three languages she speaks: Bangla, Arabic, and English.

    Photo: Katherine Ouellette

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    “Overall, I hope the students continue to use their data activism skills to re-envision a society that supports marginalized groups,” says Walker. “Moreover, I hope they are empowered to become data scientists and understand how their race can be a positive part of their identity.” More

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    MIT Schwarzman College of Computing unveils Break Through Tech AI

    Aimed at driving diversity and inclusion in artificial intelligence, the MIT Stephen A. Schwarzman College of Computing is launching Break Through Tech AI, a new program to bridge the talent gap for women and underrepresented genders in AI positions in industry.

    Break Through Tech AI will provide skills-based training, industry-relevant portfolios, and mentoring to qualified undergraduate students in the Greater Boston area in order to position them more competitively for careers in data science, machine learning, and artificial intelligence. The free, 18-month program will also provide each student with a stipend for participation to lower the barrier for those typically unable to engage in an unpaid, extra-curricular educational opportunity.

    “Helping position students from diverse backgrounds to succeed in fields such as data science, machine learning, and artificial intelligence is critical for our society’s future,” says Daniel Huttenlocher, dean of the MIT Schwarzman College of Computing and Henry Ellis Warren Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. “We look forward to working with students from across the Greater Boston area to provide them with skills and mentorship to help them find careers in this competitive and growing industry.”

    The college is collaborating with Break Through Tech — a national initiative launched by Cornell Tech in 2016 to increase the number of women and underrepresented groups graduating with degrees in computing — to host and administer the program locally. In addition to Boston, the inaugural artificial intelligence and machine learning program will be offered in two other metropolitan areas — one based in New York hosted by Cornell Tech and another in Los Angeles hosted by the University of California at Los Angeles Samueli School of Engineering.

    “Break Through Tech’s success at diversifying who is pursuing computer science degrees and careers has transformed lives and the industry,” says Judith Spitz, executive director of Break Through Tech. “With our new collaborators, we can apply our impactful model to drive inclusion and diversity in artificial intelligence.”

    The new program will kick off this summer at MIT with an eight-week, skills-based online course and in-person lab experience that teaches industry-relevant tools to build real-world AI solutions. Students will learn how to analyze datasets and use several common machine learning libraries to build, train, and implement their own ML models in a business context.

    Following the summer course, students will be matched with machine-learning challenge projects for which they will convene monthly at MIT and work in teams to build solutions and collaborate with an industry advisor or mentor throughout the academic year, resulting in a portfolio of resume-quality work. The participants will also be paired with young professionals in the field to help build their network, prepare their portfolio, practice for interviews, and cultivate workplace skills.

    “Leveraging the college’s strong partnership with industry, Break Through AI will offer unique opportunities to students that will enhance their portfolio in machine learning and AI,” says Asu Ozdaglar, deputy dean of academics of the MIT Schwarzman College of Computing and head of the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. Ozdaglar, who will be the MIT faculty director of Break Through Tech AI, adds: “The college is committed to making computing inclusive and accessible for all. We’re thrilled to host this program at MIT for the Greater Boston area and to do what we can to help increase diversity in computing fields.”

    Break Through Tech AI is part of the MIT Schwarzman College of Computing’s focus to advance diversity, equity, and inclusion in computing. The college aims to improve and create programs and activities that broaden participation in computing classes and degree programs, increase the diversity of top faculty candidates in computing fields, and ensure that faculty search and graduate admissions processes have diverse slates of candidates and interviews.

    “By engaging in activities like Break Through Tech AI that work to improve the climate for underrepresented groups, we’re taking an important step toward creating more welcoming environments where all members can innovate and thrive,” says Alana Anderson, assistant dean for diversity, equity and inclusion for the Schwarzman College of Computing. More

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    Studying learner engagement during the Covid-19 pandemic

    While massive open online classes (MOOCs) have been a significant trend in higher education for many years now, they have gained a new level of attention during the Covid-19 pandemic. Open online courses became a critical resource for a wide audience of new learners during the first stages of the pandemic — including students whose academic programs had shifted online, teachers seeking online resources, and individuals suddenly facing lockdown or unemployment and looking to build new skills.

    Mary Ellen Wiltrout, director of online and blended learning initiatives and lecturer in digital learning in the Department of Biology, and Virginia “Katie” Blackwell, currently an MIT PhD student in biology, published a paper this summer in the European MOOC Stakeholder Summit (EMOOCs 2021) conference proceedings evaluating data for the online course 7.00x (Introduction to Biology). Their research objective was to better understand whether the shift to online learning that occurred during the pandemic led to increased learner engagement in the course.Blackwell participated in this research as part of the Bernard S. and Sophie G. Gould MIT Summer Research Program (MSRP) in Biology, during the uniquely remote MSRPx-Biology 2020 student cohort. She collaborated on the project while working toward her bachelor’s degree in biochemistry and molecular biology from the University of Texas at Dallas, and collaborated on the research while in Texas. She has since applied and been accepted into MIT’s PhD program in biology.

    “MSRP Biology was a transformative experience for me. I learned a lot about the nature of research and the MIT community in a very short period of time and loved every second of the program. Without MSRP, I would never have even considered applying to MIT for my PhD. After MSRP and working with Mary Ellen, MIT biology became my first-choice program and I felt like I had a shot at getting in,” says Blackwell.

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    Many MOOC platforms experienced increased website traffic in 2020, with 30 new MOOC-based degrees and more than 60 million new learners.

    “We find that the tremendous, lifelong learning opportunities that MOOCs provide are even more important and sought-after when traditional education is disrupted. During the pandemic, people had to be at home more often, and some faced unemployment requiring a career transition,” says Wiltrout.

    Wiltrout and Blackwell wanted to build a deeper understanding of learner profiles rather than looking exclusively at enrollments. They looked at all available data, including: enrollment demographics (i.e., country and “.edu” participants); proportion of learners engaged with videos, problems, and forums; number of individual engagement events with videos, problems, and forums; verification and performance; and the course “track” level — including auditing (for free) and verified (paying and receiving access to additional course content, including access to a comprehensive competency exam). They analyzed data in these areas from five runs of 7.00x in this study, including three pre-pandemic runs of April, July, and November 2019 and two pandemic runs of March and July 2020. 

    The March 2020 run had the same count of verified-track participants as all three pre-pandemic runs combined. The July 2020 run enrolled nearly as many verified-track participants as the March 2020 run. Wiltrout says that introductory biology content may have attracted great attention during the early days and months of the Covid-19 pandemic, as people may have had a new (or renewed) interest in learning about (or reviewing) viruses, RNA, the inner workings of cells, and more.

    Wiltrout and Blackwell found that the enrollment count for the March 2020 run of the course increased at almost triple the rate of the three pre-pandemic runs. During the early days of March 2020, the enrollment metrics appeared similar to enrollment metrics for the April 2019 run — both in rate and count — but the enrollment rate increased sharply around March 15, 2020. The July 2020 run began with more than twice as many learners already enrolled by the first day of the course, but continued with half the enrollment rate of the March 2020 course. In terms of learner demographics, during the pandemic, there was a higher proportion of learners with .edu addresses, indicating that MOOCs were often used by students enrolled in other schools. 

    Viewings of course videos increased at the beginning of the pandemic. During the March 2020 run, both verified-track and certified participants viewed far more unique videos during March 2020 than in the pre-pandemic runs of the course; even auditor-track learners — not aiming for certification — still viewed all videos offered. During the July 2020 run, however, both verified-track and certified participants viewed far fewer unique videos than during all prior runs. The proportion of participants who viewed at least one video decreased in the July 2020 run to 53 percent, from a mean of 64 percent in prior runs. Blackwell and Wiltrout say that this decrease — as well as the overall dip in participation in July 2020 — might be attributed to shifting circumstances for learners that allowed for less time to watch videos and participate in the course, as well as some fatigue from the extra screen time.

    The study found that 4.4 percent of March 2020 participants and 4.5 percent of July 2020 participants engaged through forum posting — which was 1.4 to 3.3 times higher than pre-pandemic proportions of forum posting. The increase in forum engagement may point to a desire for community engagement during a time when many were isolated and sheltering in place.

    “Through the day-to-day work of my research team and also through the engagement of the learners in 7.00x, we can see that there is great potential for meaningful connections in remote experiences,” says Wiltrout. “An increase in participation for an online course may not always remain at the same high level, in the long term, but overall, we’re continuing to see an increase in the number of MOOCs and other online programs offered by all universities and institutions, as well as an increase in online learners.” More