The AI ​​program aims to overcome barriers for female students

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

As part of the program, called Break Through Tech AI, Ms. Prudencio completed an intensive course developed by Cornell Tech faculty with input from technology executives. She embarked on an artificial intelligence student project for Pfizer to create heart disease prediction models. She and she were mentored by a Citigroup cybersecurity executive on how to ace technical job interviews.

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

“I had never been aware of health technology before my project with Pfizer,” said Ms. Prudencio, 20, who works part-time at a tennis center. She now hopes to pursue a career in healthcare AI. “This is much more fulfilling, I personally think, because you are building models that could potentially save lives.”

Break Through Tech is at the forefront of college-led efforts to reduce barriers to technology careers for underrepresented college students, including low-income, Latina and Black young women. The new AI program, the largest of its kind in the United States, takes an innovative approach in a tech industry whose recruiting criteria – technical interviews, hackathon wins, internal employee references, previous internships – often advantage students richer than the best universities. It aims to help low-income students, many of whom have part-time jobs in addition to schoolwork, learn AI skills, develop industry connections and participate in research projects they can discuss with recruiters of work.

Hosted and supported by MIT, the University of California, Los Angeles, and Cornell Tech, the artificial intelligence program is free. And it is intended primarily for students who attend public institutions – such as the campuses of California State University, the City University of New York and the University of Massachusetts – or minority-serving institutions such as historically black colleges.

Participants take an online summer course on the basics of machine learning, which is artificial intelligence systems that teach themselves to detect patterns in datasets. The students, who receive a $2,000 stipend, are also assigned career mentors from institutions such as Columbia University and Accenture. They work on student AI challenges hosted by employers such as Google, JPMorgan Chase and Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.

This year, students also participated in a semester-long competition to develop artificial intelligence models capable of distinguishing tens of thousands of digitized images of plant specimens belonging to the New York Botanical Garden, one of the most important collections of plants in the world, from other types of images such as photographs of insects. The winning models achieved an accuracy of 99% or better. Emily Sessa, director of the botanical 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 enjoyed working on the code and seeing the results,” said Sabreen Shigri, a computer engineering graduate from Stony Brook University on Long Island. Her student team, called the Foxgloves, placed third in the competition. “I thought it was cool that we could use artificial intelligence to help the environment,” she said.

A few weeks ago, 150 students who had just completed the artificial intelligence program went to the Botanical Garden, 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 student at the New York Institute of Technology on Long Island.

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

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

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

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

In other words, the AI ​​program isn't trying to reform the tech industry's elitist recruiting practices. It is awarding prestigious credentials from elite institutions like Cornell and MIT to students at other schools to help them get hired in tech jobs.

“These students do not come from schools with household names or from families that can open doors,” said Judith Spitz, executive director of Break Through Tech. “We're just giving students the opportunity to show what they're capable of.”

Computer science remains a highly male-dominated field. In 2022, men accounted for nearly 78% of bachelor's degrees awarded in computer science, while Latina and Black women combined earned just 2% of bachelor's degrees, according to an annual report from the Computing Research Association on PhD-granting universities . field programs. Likewise, at some large tech companies, only a small percentage of computer 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, this program offers short-term paid technology internships to help computer science students gain on-the-job experience and industry connections.

In 2022, Break Through Tech has launched an effort specifically focused on expanding access to careers in artificial intelligence. 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. As of 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 potential AI biases, such as faulty facial recognition systems that have led to false arrests of Black men.

“As we think about both the promise and the danger of artificial intelligence,” Dr. Spitz said in a speech to students at the botanical garden, “who is in the room asking the hard questions about what the definition of equity is? Who has to gain or lose?”

Criticizing AI can also pose risks. Several prominent female researchers working at Big Tech companies who raised questions about AI bias are 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 ignore how people's voices can be manipulated and how dangerous artificial intelligence can be,” said Ruth Okuo, a computer science graduate from Hunter College in Manhattan, noting that participating in the program has made me want to know more about the potential Risks and harms of AI. “I want to know what the laws are or should be.”

Ms. Okuo, who works part-time at an Apple Store, said she was looking for new opportunities to further her interest in the ethics of artificial intelligence.

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

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