Linking AI education to meaningful projects

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Our seminars in this series on AI and data science education, co-hosted with The Alan Turing Institute, have been covering a range of different topics and perspectives. This month was no exception. We were delighted to be able to host Tara Chklovski, CEO of Technovation, whose presentation was called ‘Teaching youth to use AI to tackle the Sustainable Development Goals’.

Tara Chklovski.
Tara Chklovski

The Technovation Challenge

Tara started Technovation, formerly called Iridescent, in 2007 with a family science programme in one school in Los Angeles. The nonprofit has grown hugely, and Technovation now runs computing education activities across the world. We heard from Tara that over 350,000 girls from more than 100 countries take part in their programmes, and that the nonprofit focuses particularly on empowering girls to become tech entrepreneurs. The girls, with support from industry volunteers, parents, and the Technovation curriculum, work in teams to solve real-world problems through an annual event called the Technovation Challenge. Working at scale with young people has given the Technovation team the opportunity to investigate the impact of their programmes as well as more generally learn what works in computing education. 

Tara Chklovski describes the Technovation Challenge in an online seminar.
Click to enlarge

Tara’s talk was extremely engaging (you’ll find the recording below), with videos of young people who had participated in recent years. Technovation works with volunteers and organisations to reach young people in communities where opportunities may be lacking, focussing on low- and middle-income countries. Tara spoke about the 900 million teenage girls in the world, a  substantial number of whom live in countries where there is considerable inequality. 

To illustrate the impact of the programme, Tara gave a number of examples of projects that students had developed, including:

  • An air quality sensor linked to messaging about climate change
  • A support circle for girls living in domestic violence situation
  • A project helping mothers communicate with their daughters
  • Support for water collection in Kenya

Early on, the Technovation Challenge had involved the creation of mobile apps, but in recent years, the projects have focused on using AI technologies to solve problems. An key message that Tara wanted to get across was that the focus on real-world problems and teamwork was as important, if not more, than the technical skills the young people were developing.

Technovation has designed an online curriculum to support teams, who may have no prior computing experience, to learn how to design an AI project. Students work through units on topics such as data analysis and building datasets. As well as the technical activities, young people also work through activities on problem-solving approaches, design, and system thinking to help them tackle a real-world problem that is relevant to them. The curriculum supports teams to identify problems in their community and find a path to prototype and share an invention to tackle that problem.

Tara Chklovski describes the Technovation Challenge in an online seminar.
Click to enlarge

While working through the curriculum, teams develop AI models to address the problem that they have chosen. They then submit them to a global competition for beginners, juniors, and seniors. Many of the girls enjoy the Technovation Challenge so much that they come back year on year to further develop their team skills. 

AI Families: Children and parents using AI to solve problems

Technovation runs another programme, AI Families, that focuses on families working together to learn AI concepts and skills and use them to develop projects together. Families worked together with the help of educators to identify meaningful problems in their communities, and developed AI prototypes to address them.

A list of lessons in the AI Families programme from Technovation.

There were 20,000 participants from under-resourced communities in 17 countries through 2018 and 2019. 70% of them were women (mothers and grandmothers) who wanted their children to participate; in this way the programme encouraged parents to be role models for their daughters, as well as enabling families to understand that AI is a tool that could be used to think about what problems in their community can be solved with the help of AI skills and principles. Tara was keen to emphasise that, given the importance of AI in the world, the more people know about it, the more impact they can make on their local communities.

Tara shared links to the curriculum to demonstrate what families in this programme would learn week by week. The AI modules use tools such as Machine Learning for Kids.

The results of the AI Families project as investigated over 2018 and 2019 are reported in this paper.  The findings of the programme included:

  • Learning needs to focus on more than just content; interviews showed that the learners needed to see the application to real-world applications
  • Engaging parents and other family members can support retention and a sense of community, and support a culture of lifelong learning
  • It takes around 3 to 5 years to iteratively develop fun, engaging, effective curriculum, training, and scalable programme delivery methods. This level of patience and commitment is needed from all community and industry partners and funders.

The research describes how the programme worked pre-pandemic. Tara highlighted that although the pandemic has prevented so much face-to-face team work, it has allowed some young people to access education online that they would not have otherwise had access to.

Many perspectives on AI education

Our goal is to listen to a variety of perspectives through this seminar series, and I felt that Tara really offered something fresh and engaging to our seminar audience, many of them (many of you!) regular attendees who we’ve got to know since we’ve been running the seminars. The seminar combined real-life stories with videos, as well as links to the curriculum used by Technovation to support learners of AI. The ‘question and answer’ session after the seminar focused on ways in which people could engage with the programme. On Twitter, one of the seminar participants declared this seminar “my favourite thus far in the series”.  It was indeed very inspirational.

As we near the end of this series, we can start to reflect on what we’ve been learning from all the various speakers, and I intend to do this more formally in a month or two as we prepare Volume 3 of our seminar proceedings. While Tara’s emphasis is on motivating children to want to learn the latest technologies because they can see what they can achieve with them, some of our other speakers have considered the actual concepts we should be teaching, whether we have to change our approach to teaching computer science if we include AI, and how we should engage young learners in the ethics of AI.

Join us for our next seminar

I’m really looking forward to our final seminar in the series, with Stefania Druga, on Tuesday 1 March at 17:00–18:30 GMT. Stefania, PhD candidate at the University of Washington Information School, will also focus on families. In her talk ‘Democratising AI education with and for families’, she will consider the ways that children engage with smart, AI-enabled devices that they are becoming part of their everyday lives. It’s a perfect way to finish this series, and we hope you’ll join us.

Thanks to our seminars series, we are developing a list of AI education resources that seminar speakers and attendees share with us, plus the free resources we are developing at the Foundation. Please do take a look.

You can find all blog posts relating to our previous seminars on this page.

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