SFU AI summer program continues to help close gender diversity gap in STEM

August 19, 2019

By Andrew Ringer

This July, 24 Grade 10 and 11 young women visited Simon Fraser University’s Burnaby campus to participate in the Invent the Future: Artificial Intelligence (AI) Scholars Program. In this program, participants explored the world of AI through team projects and industry field trips, while connecting with industry experts and mentors in a lively environment. Students worked on a range of topics including robots, computer vision, natural language processing and recommendation systems.

The program is run by SFU’s School of Computing Science in partnership with AI4ALL, a non-profit organization working to increase inclusion and diversity in the field of AI. SFU is the only Canadian university partnered with AI4ALL, and one of only 11 universities in North America in the partner network.

“We at Invent the Future are aiming for diversity by targeting early engagement of participants in learning concepts used by AI systems,” says program co-director and computing science lecturer Ouldooz Baghban Karimi. “The early exposure is a critical initial step towards very much required diversity in the field. I believe, to maintain diversity, we have more work to do, starting from early exposure as we do, and ensuring inclusion at every stage after as well.”

While students gained technical knowledge throughout the program, what they learned stretches far beyond that.

“One of the most important things that I got from this program is [learning about] the breadth of artificial intelligence, realizing that it has so many impacts and that it’s already used so much in our everyday lives,” says participant Ines Khouider. “There are so many different directions that you can go in with AI.”

Diversity in the technology industry allows for innovators to better understand their customers’ needs, and leads to products that are built for everyone. According to a recent study, “less than 30% of underrepresented groups have representation, retention, and sense of belonging” in the industry.

“It’s important for us to have diversity in creating artificial intelligence because if we only let a few select people create artificial intelligence then we’re only going to have artificial intelligence that caters to their needs and reflects their beliefs,” says program participant Cathy Chen.

Providing an opportunity for young women to gain experience with AI is a powerful way to change this going forward.

AI4ALL aims to remove barriers to provide opportunities for underrepresented young people to engage with AI. According to their website, 90% of AI4ALL alumni experience a sense of community in AI and computer science (CS), 61% are now working on their own AI/CS projects, and 87% of alumni believe that their perspective could benefit the AI field.

“[AI4ALL] is doing a really great job of including not just girls, not just equal gender representation, but also from low-income families and different ethnicities,” says Kimia Rostin, an alumna of the program from 2018 who came back this year as a mentor.

SFU is helping close the STEM gender gap by providing a comfortable environment for participants to learn in. ITF focuses specifically on gender diversity and invites participants to feel a sense of community as they learn about an important industry.

“I found it a lot easier to feel passionate about [AI] and not feel scared or insecure about my knowledge in the field,” says participant Taylor Morgan.

“I find that I’m in a community,” adds Chen.

Participants from last year’s debut program at SFU jumped at the opportunity to help with this year’s program, as evidenced by returning alumnae mentors Sarah Li and Rostin, as well as others.

“I really wanted to stay involved with AI because I really believe in diversity in AI. I remember last year having a really positive experience that helped me choose the direction that I want to go into for post-secondary and I really wanted to be a part of that for the girls this year,” says Li.

“[The program is] two weeks. It’s a small amount of time but it genuinely changed what I wanted to pursue,” says Rostin.

“It’s pretty amazing to think that two weeks can change your life potentially.”