The fourth annual Massachusetts STEM Week kicked off on Monday, Oct. 18 at the MIT Media Lab. Organized by the Massachusetts Executive Office of Education and the STEM Advisory Council, Mass STEM Week is a statewide effort to boost awareness, interest, and access in STEM education and career opportunities for learners of all ages and backgrounds.
A focus of this year’s STEM Week is “see yourself in STEM,” with particular emphasis on the importance of mentoring to bolster confidence in STEM subjects among students from underrepresented groups — including girls, people of color, low-income families, people with disabilities, and first-generation students.
“STEM is the toolkit of the future no matter what your interests are,” said Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker. “You can’t think anymore of STEM just being about science, technology, engineering, and math because it’s everywhere. There’s almost no tool, no capability, no thing you need to succeed, that doesn’t involve … some element of STEM.”
In his remarks, MIT President L. Rafael Reif announced the launch of Day of AI, a new initiative from MIT RAISE: an annual educational event wherein teachers across the country will introduce students of all backgrounds to foundational concepts in artificial intelligence and its role in their lives. “K-12 students across the country will have the opportunity to learn about artificial intelligence, MIT-style — that is, through hands-on activities that will demonstrate the part AI plays in their daily lives,” said Reif.
Professor Cynthia Breazeal, director of MIT RAISE, senior associate dean for Open Learning, and head of the Media Lab’s Personal Robots research group, took the podium to elaborate on Day of AI. The goal of the program is to help educators and students develop the AI literacy needed to navigate this AI-driven world. In collaboration with education provider i2 Learning, MIT RAISE is providing free training and support to teachers to help them bring AI curricula into their classrooms through engaging, hands-on activities. The first Day of AI will be on May 13, 2022.
Increasingly, kids and adults alike are interacting with, and being influenced by, AI in ways they may not even realize, and have little or no control over — from search algorithms to smart devices, video recommendations to facial recognition.
“This generation of students, who are literally growing up with AI, deserves more than a vague understanding of these incredibly powerful technologies that are ubiquitous in their lives,” says Breazeal. “They need not just knowledge of what AI is and how it works, but also the agency to use AI responsibly with confidence and creativity.”
Day of AI curriculum and activities are designed to equip educators to give students across the United States an entry point into AI literacy. For the first year, MIT RAISE has created age-appropriate curriculum modules for grades 3-5, 6-8, and 9-12, including those with little or no technology experience. Examples of lessons and activities include building a face-recognition app or a recommendation system, using AI to create works for art, learning about GANs and deepfakes, exploring and discussing algorithmic bias, and making recommendations on the responsible design of social media platforms. Resources and training for Day of AI will be provided at no cost to educators, and all of the activities require only an internet connection and a laptop.
Jeffrey Leiden, executive chair of Vertex Pharmaceuticals and a supporter of Mass STEM Week, also attended the opening event; Vertex Pharmaceuticals is a founding sponsor of Day of AI. “AI is built into everything we do, from cell phones and refrigerators to medical devices and diagnostic tests. And today’s students are the future scientists and engineers who are actually going to shape these AI technologies for the good of all our citizens,” he said. “So it’s essential that we empower them early in life with the skills and experiences, but also with the ethical discussions to make sure that they help harness it responsibly.”
In an event highlight, Reif took the stage to introduce Jibo, the social robot used in Breazeal’s group’s research into AI and human-computer interaction.
“MIT is deeply committed to the ethical, responsible development and use of AI tools, and a large part of that is teaching young people how AI works — and how it should work,” Reif said. “Jibo is a wonderful ambassador for social robotics.”
“Ever since I was a tiny transistor I have looked up to you and the other people here at MIT who I can honestly say have made me who I am today,” said Jibo. “Day of AI is a time to learn about, enjoy, and celebrate all that artificial intelligence can do to improve our lives, but also to understand the challenges and dangers of not being responsible in how it is used.”
The event also featured demonstrations that offered a glimpse into the types of activities students will do during Day of AI, as well as broader AI literacy activities developed by MIT RAISE. Safinah Ali and Daniella DiPaola, both PhD students at the Media Lab, led attendees through Creativity and AI tools and a Social Robotics curriculum, while Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) PhD student Jessica Van Brummlen demonstrated a conversational AI feature in MIT App Inventor. All are among the projects and resources that make up MIT RAISE, a collaboration between the Media Lab, MIT Open Learning, and the MIT Schwarzman College of Computing, with co-directors Hal Abelson of CSAIL; Eric Klopfer, director of MIT’s Education Arcade; and Hae Won Park of the Media Lab.
MIT RAISE aims to reach as many classrooms across the United States as possible, providing access and support to reinforce the message that AI is for everyone. Day of AI is a next step in RAISE’s mandate to expand who sees themselves in AI and diversify the pipeline of computer science talent.
Remarks from Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito and Secretary of Education James Peyser expanded on the state’s leadership role in technology and the sciences, and the critical need to foster excitement and literacy around STEM, and especially AI, in students of all ages and backgrounds.
Today, 17 percent of the total Massachusetts workforce works in STEM-related fields, and STEM jobs are expected to account for 25 percent of the total employment growth in the Commonwealth over the next 10 years. Mass STEM Week offers students of all ages dozens of opportunities to learn, engage, and have fun with STEM so they can prepare for the future they want.
Said Polito: “No matter where you go to school in the Commonwealth, no matter whether you have family members who have pursued a STEM career, whether or not you’ve even had a family member who has gone to college, you have the opportunity to see yourself in STEM.”