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Colby College Centers AI With Summer Program, Curricular Integration

As one way to develop new talent for jobs in artificial intelligence, Colby College in Maine created an intensive summer program that trains students in AI and has them pitch ideas for new products to a panel of judges.

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Predicting that artificial intelligence tools will become ubiquitous even in non-STEM job fields, educators at Colby College in Maine launched an eight-week summer program this year and started integrating AI into the college’s wider curriculum to get more students thinking about how it works and how it might apply to different career fields.

Thirteen students from Colby and its partner school Lincoln University in Pennsylvania spent this summer in a program developed through a partnership with the tech workforce development company SureStart, learning about the basics of AI and how to put their newfound skills and knowledge to use by developing startup ideas, according to a recent news release. Student ideas included mobile apps that search efficiently for college funding or scholarships, or generate 3D models for use by architects, designers or hobbyists.

Amanda Stent, director of the Colby College Davis Institute for Artificial Intelligence, said that the SureStart summer program gave students an opportunity to work with mentors and industry partners to learn more about the ins and outs of AI development and create their own AI-driven tools. She said the new program is part of a larger effort at Colby College to get more students interested in AI technologies and related career paths in order to build AI literacy as early as possible.

Stent said that while the typical undergraduate takes “maybe one AI course in their senior year after they have satisfied all the prerequisites,” Colby aims to encourage students across all majors to take courses related to AI and AI ethics so they can apply the technology to solve real-world challenges.

“We start from the understanding that everybody today is part of AI as a socio-technical system. … Because of that, everybody, no matter what their career goal, needs to become an informed and critical consumer of AI, and many people in many fields should want to become informed and critical AI tool users or AI tool builders,” Stent said. “One of our five-year goals is that 25 percent of Colby graduates across 80 percent of departments will have pursued an AI curricular pathway, like a concentration or a SureStart program by the time they graduate. That is very much part of our long-term goal. … It’s time for people who are subject-matter experts [outside of computer science] to be empowered and enabled to say how AI gets developed for their field.”

According to Stent, the SureStart summer program was administered through Colby’s Halloran Lab for Entrepreneurship, a center recently established to prepare students for entrepreneurship in emerging technologies. She said that through the new lab and programs like SureStart, the college hopes to become a focal point for student-led AI startups.

In addition to the summer program, she said Colby College this past year enrolled 600 students, or 25 percent of its student population, in classes that teach about or discuss AI. She said the topic is now touched upon in music, anthropology, history, philosophy, chemistry, environmental studies, economics and other disciplines.

“I think it’s really valuable for students to have a period of time where they can really focus on both the technical aspects of AI and on envisioning themselves in an AI career, and that’s one area where I think the SureStart program is great,” she said.

Jeremy Barron, director of the Halloran Lab for Entrepreneurship, said Colby’s approach to AI programming and initiatives like SureStart could also improve students’ business skills, as well as “soft skills” such as public speaking. He said at the end of the SureStart program, students learned how to pitch their ideas to a panel of judges, who gave feedback and suggestions.

“I was able to expose them at a very early stage to the general basics and frameworks of design thinking and utilizing a business-model canvas to create an efficient and easy-to-edit business model, and was able to work with the students to practice and to work on actually developing a full pitch [for a startup] that they were able to deliver to a crowd,” he said.

Cathy Fan, a sophomore planning to major in computer science with a concentration in AI, said the SureStart program encouraged students like her to consider career paths in AI. She said her student group presented an idea for a startup called Ptereo, a generative 3D model which uses AI to convert text into a set of images for 3D virtual reality or 3D printing models. According to the college’s news release, the team’s market research revealed many complaints about current 3D-modeling technologies available today, including the cost, speed and steep learning curves.

“I actually started taking my first AI courses in January, about computer vision, and I thought it was pretty interesting, but I didn’t delve into it that deep until I went to the summer SureStart program, where we spent a great amount of time in the first month understanding techniques in AI,” she said. “We also like to talk about the ethics of AI, and I think that’s a really important area too.”
Brandon Paykamian is a staff writer for Government Technology. He has a bachelor's degree in journalism from East Tennessee State University and years of experience as a multimedia reporter, mainly focusing on public education and higher ed.