Stanford Summer Program Offers Girls AI, STEM Exposure

(Photo: Wikimedia, Creative Commons)

(Photo: Wikimedia, Creative Commons)

A summer program available through Stanford University this year focused on introducing high school girls to artificial intelligence. Participants were able to experience a number of other related concepts, such as flying drones, learning how autonomous cars work, diving robots, and machine learning for healthcare.

The Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory’s Outreach Summer (SAILORS) program was created in 2014 by Olga Russakovsky, a postdoctoral researcher at the school, and Fei-Fei Li, associate professor of computer science and director of Stanford’s AI Lab.  The duo thought of the program when considering ways to entice girls to enter the field, writes Dian Schaffhauser for The Journal.

“Over breakfast, they would braid each other’s hair and at the same time talk about AI and their research projects,” said Russakovsky, in an article on the Stanford website. “The program provides an environment where it’s cool to be a girl interested in AI.”

Concepts that students were introduced to include design thinking, inductive reasoning, the growth mindset, and time management.

In addition, campers were able to meet and talk with women who work at a variety of companies, such as Google, Intel, and Airbnb.  Question and answer sessions were also held with industry representatives including Maria Klawe, head of Harvey Mudd College, which features a STEM program with an equal number of male and female participants, as well as a large number of students from other under-represented demographics.

Students completed research projects in teams over the course of the two week camp.  This year, projects focused on the use of natural language processing in an effort to aid with disaster relief, using computer vision in order to help increase safety at hospitals, decoding DNA, and taking a closer look at personal transportation with the introduction of the self-driving car.

Now a postdoctoral fellow at Carnegie Mellon University, Russavosky said that the camp focuses on three things: a lack of exposure to technology during early education, a lack of role models and social support for women, and the lack of perception on how computer science affects the real world.

“It seems like a lot of girls are interested in these fields, but then drop out as their education progresses,” says Russakovsky. “We created a camp centered around teaching AI from a humanist prospective.”

More than 200 students applied to participate in the program during each of its first two years, with just 24 spots available.  While the majority of applicants, 76%, came from California, applications were also received from across the country and from various other countries.  The camp is free for students with the help of sponsors.  However, families are responsible for room and board.

“Her message was so great,” said student Epiphany White on her discussion with Klawe. “We were able to talk to her and ask her questions. She really encouraged us to stay in the computer science field and dig deep into it.”

White added that when she arrives home, she intends to begin a computer science club at her own school.