At a time when a global pandemic has laid bare—and exacerbated—many of the inequities that exist in education, a new nonprofit organization has emerged that aims to tackle at least some of them.
The AI Education Project, founded in 2019, hopes to teach young people about artificial intelligence and the way it will impact—and is already impacting—their lives and livelihoods. The primary way the nonprofit is doing this is through an AI curriculum it launched in May in Akron Public Schools in Ohio but which has already spread to six states and more than 2,500 students.
The curriculum was designed specifically for Generation Z, which research shows is interested in both high-paying jobs and promoting civil rights and social justice issues, says Ora Tanner, co-founder and chief learning officer at the AI Education Project.
The nonprofit convened a virtual forum on AI and workforce readiness earlier in December, during which EdSurge moderated a conversation with Tanner and Girls Who Code COO Tarika Barrett. Both women are committed to making education more equitable and technology fields more diverse, especially in the face of a pandemic that has disproportionately affected the populations they seek to elevate. This includes girls, who were already underrepresented in STEM fields before the pandemic added new caregiving responsibilities for many of them that sidelined their education.
What follows is a transcript of the discussion, lightly edited and condensed.
EdSurge: Why do you feel an urgency for students from untapped communities to develop a foundational understanding about not just technology, but AI specifically?
Ora Tanner: Artificial intelligence is expected to impact and transform every area of students’ lives and our society. Students need to be equipped with the knowledge and skills required to navigate what’s being called “the new electricity.” And we’ve heard various predictions from different reports—the World Economic Forum predicts that 75 million jobs will be eliminated by 2022. A McKinsey report estimates that 50 percent of jobs are at risk of being highly automated. But if you drill down into those numbers, workers who are ages 16 through 24—also known as Gen Z—are overrepresented in the repetitive types of jobs that are at the highest risk of being displaced due to automation.
That’s why this urgency is there, specifically because they’re in jobs such as fast food, grocery and retail, and we already see those being replaced by self checkout and kiosks. Also, Hispanic, American Indian or indigenous people, Black workers face on average an automation potential that’s well above their white and Asian counterparts.
I’ve seen research where students feel like classes in schools are not preparing them adequately for the careers of the future and that they haven’t had an opportunity to explore careers, especially as they’re impacted by AI.
Can you discuss the design considerations that you made to ensure that the content in your curriculum is accessible to the diverse students that you’re trying to serve?
Tanner: First we centered the students themselves in our design process. Beyond race and gender, they’re young people, and so their beliefs, their values and their communities should be centered in the design process.
Also, because we launched in the middle of COVID, we had to look at some situational factors. Everyone’s going online. Students are now at home, they might have to be caring for siblings and there’s access issues. We have to keep all of that in mind—what they realistically could and could not do.
Our learning objectives focus on the social, political, economical and cultural aspects of AI. And we did that because we believe it lowers the barrier to entry to learning about AI for more types of students. Also, we have what I like to call a pedagogy stack. We really focused on culturally relevant pedagogy as one of the foundational theoretical frameworks. We really want to empower students to celebrate their communities and reflect that throughout all of the content.
And we use asset-based approaches versus deficit-oriented teaching methods. And then just a little bit about the Gen Z—what they really care about. At the forefront of their thinking, they want well-paying jobs. That’s a huge motivation. But they also have civil rights and social justice issues at the forefront of their thinking. So we weave that throughout all of our content.
I’ve heard you say the curriculum is more like TikTok than Scholastic.
Tanner: I would say the persona of the course is what students are used to finding online, on social media platforms. I call it “Gen Z curriculum design.” Instead of saying, ’These are your learning objectives,’ we just have #goals. We talk about the platforms they’re on such as TikTok, Google. We have lots of case studies and examples that really allow them to explore different concepts, such as one about bias that might be on TikTok. Also there’s a game-based learning element to it. There’s a lot of scenario-based prompts, so it’s really playful. It connects with who they are as young people, and we’ve seen it resonate with them.
And just a point about the diversity piece—we look at our content, teaching them about AI in the context of jobs and careers, since that is what they care most about. Through 21 different careers, we teach them about data algorithms, predictive analytics, machine learning. And these are not just STEM jobs. This is fashion design, culinary arts, urban city design. But we’ve seen that it’s really resonating with them.
It’s impossible for us to sit here and talk about education and equity and not discuss the pandemic that has disproportionately impacted low-income families and families of color. What challenges has this pandemic created for you and the work that you’re doing, particularly since COVID-19 has worsened inequities among the very groups that your organizations are trying to reach?
Tarika Barrett: I think we all know the truth about the inequity of education in this country. Students from low-income or minority communities are routinely left behind, and the pandemic has only made that more clear. When schools closed their doors this past March, they left as many as 12 million students without access to Wi-Fi. We didn’t give much thought or simply weren’t prepared to support the 1.4 million kids in this country who are actually caregivers. They have these responsibilities, and most of them are actually girls. Days turned into weeks, turned into months, and over time, fewer and fewer public school students as compared to their private school peers actually attended their online classes.
At Girls Who Code, we transformed our in-person summer coding program to a virtual offering in a matter of weeks, making it our absolute highest priority to serve the most vulnerable girls. Half the girls we serve are Black, Latinx or low income. They live in our most densely populated cities and in our most rural parts of the country. They’re caregivers, babysitters. And in some cases they’re working hourly as essential employees at grocery stores or hospitals, just to help with household income.
We also raised funds to get the girls the necessary hardware and Wi-Fi hotspots. Our team’s educators, coders and data scientists had to innovate and adapt the place-based program that we’ve run for years into one that ran a few hours a day with both live and asynchronous instruction, group work and office hours. And we are so happy to report that it actually worked.
I want to say upfront that we are absolutely far from a national model for education during this crisis or for the long term, but even so, some of the adjustments that we made as a nonprofit in our programming are the kinds of adjustments that we need to see implemented for education and tech to actually be equitable.
Tanner: We actually saw the demand for what we’re doing expand. Currently our curriculum is spread across six states serving 2,500 students—and this is just having launched earlier in the school year. There’s just a demand from teachers and students.
One thing we’ve heard again and again, talking with educators and administrators, is that need for engagement. I think this is kind of an overlooked part of the accessibility. One of my many sayings is “availability does not equal accessibility.” So just because you put something out there online, students come to it and they can’t relate, or they can’t understand, or it’s bogged down with terminology and jargon, or you did not have them in mind when you created it. You have to design equity. It doesn’t just happen.
Tarika, I’m curious, given the distinction between availability and accessibility Ora just made, about what Girls Who Code did to make the summer immersion program accessible to so many more girls than are usually able to attend. Was there anything done to try to reach those students who are also caregivers or who have a part-time job or do not have reliable internet access?
Barrett: That was really at the forefront of our thinking. We did a survey of our girls before they even entered the program to really get a handle on what were their needs: How many hours could they give, did they have the hardware? Did they have the tech, would they be able to attend? That was absolutely the No. 1 thing that we had to do. And so we were able to identify those broadband issues. We were able to get girls laptops. But the entire design of the program had that orientation.
We recognize that if you’re a caregiver, you can’t just ask a girl to join a program and be there all day. You can’t expect that they’re going to not have to turn their camera off. Everything that we did was strengths-based and thought about meeting those girls where they were, and, you know, even things like office hours, we contemplated the ways in which there’s some girls who are going to be very comfortable going to office hours, culturally, based on school experience, where they already had systems like that, and other girls for whom it will be completely foreign.
We interrogated every aspect of the program that we tried to bring to market to think about what it would mean, because we knew that girls were driving to Burger King parking lots to get Wi-Fi, and that they were immensely vulnerable at this moment. And that we had to have something that would work for the most marginalized students. Typically when we run our summer immersion program, it’s girls coding from 9-5, seven days a week, in tech companies. And we usually would have about 80 of these programs, so about 1,600 girls. This year, we served 5,000 girls with a radically overhauled program that was all online.
And as Ora said, it became all about engagement. What platforms should we use? How are we going to make the breakout rooms really meaningful? There was a lot around engagement that really pushed our educators who execute this program to think differently. And there was a tremendous amount of learning, but what was amazing was that the girls and the teachers reported such strong outcomes on par with what we would normally have in our seven-week immersive program, which just blew our minds. And so it can be done. If you start with thinking about who you’re serving and how to make it engaging, meaningful and transformational for that student, if that’s your bedrock, then I think there’s a lot that we can do to transform these educational experiences.