About 300 students primarily from the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area attended the Girls Computing League’s second-ever Artificial Intelligence Summit at the National Air and Space Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly on Oct. 6 and 7.
The summit’s organizers, most of whom are still high school students themselves, hoped to make an impact with the two-day event beyond its direct participants.
In addition to introducing middle and high school students to artificial intelligence with speeches from professionals in the field as well as hands-on activities, Girls Computing League presented donations to four Fairfax County schools as well as the D.C. Housing Authority so that they can start coding clubs.
The Girls Computing League, a nonprofit founded by Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology graduate Kavya Kopparapu, is also contributing funds to host multiple artificial intelligence summits at the college level next year.
“It’s a mission of Girls Computing League in general to give access to computer science and technology education to those that might not have the opportunity to do so themselves,” Girls Computing League chief innovation officer and Kavya’s brother Neeyanth Kopparapu said. “With the new and upcoming advances in artificial intelligence…we thought that would be the perfect way to introduce high school students to the future of technology and computer science.”
Now a junior at Thomas Jefferson, Neeyanth says he has been fascinated by artificial intelligence ever since he took a course on the subject during his freshman year.
He recognizes, though, that most students do not have access to the same opportunities offered at Thomas Jefferson, a state-chartered magnet school in Alexandria that is currently ranked as the best high school in Virginia and as one of the top high schools in the country by U.S. News & World Report.
Weyanoke Elementary School stands a mere half-mile up Braddock Road from Thomas Jefferson.
Both belong to the Fairfax County Public Schools system, and collaboration between the schools is not unusual. Weyanoke offers afterschool tutoring, mentoring, and enrichment programs to its kindergarten through fifth-grade students led by their teenage peers from Thomas Jefferson.
The difference in resources and demographics could hardly be more drastic, though.
Nearly 68 percent of Thomas Jefferson’s 1,774-student population is Asian. 21 percent of all students are white, while black and Latino students comprise a mere 3.5 percent of the student body combined.
Serving a much smaller population of about 530 students, Weyanoke’s student body is 51 percent Hispanic or Latino, about 24 percent black, 14 percent Asian, and just under 10 percent white. More than 65 percent of its students used English learner services in the 2017-2018 school year, according to the school’s profile.
81 percent of Weyanoke students receive free or reduced-price meals compared to 2 percent of Thomas Jefferson students.
While Thomas Jefferson offers a wide variety of classes with an emphasis on science, math, and technology, 13 percent of students who attend Weyanoke have no home internet access, and a quarter of all students can only access the internet through their parents’ cell phones, according to Weyanoke principal Felicia Usher.
Weyanoke is one of 46 FCPS elementary schools that qualified for Title I funding for the 2018-2019 school year, meaning that it has at least 45 percent poverty and receives federal money to upgrade its educational programming in the hopes of closing academic achievement gaps, FCPS says.
According to Usher, budget constraints necessitated cuts in Weyanoke’s science and computer classes, so it came as a particular relief that the elementary school was chosen as one of five recipients of a $2,500 donation from Girls Computing League to start an afterschool coding program that will be run by a team from the nonprofit.
Specifically, Weyanoke’s new club will focus on robotics, teaching students technical skills such as coding as well as problem-solving and collaboration.
“This kind of supplemental activity can create real possibilities for our students, allowing them to experience science in a low-risk, high-reward environment and to play with the toys that many of them would otherwise never see,” Usher said. “When students can see that they can program robots, solve problems, and work well with technology, the distance to TJ won’t seem so far away.”
The Girls Computing League gave similar donations to Bailey’s Elementary in Falls Church, Crestwood Elementary School in Springfield, and Alexandria’s Glasgow Middle School as well as the D.C. Housing Authority.
Neeyanth says he, Kavya, and the other Artificial Intelligence Summit organizers determined which schools to support simply by contacting all Title I schools in Fairfax County.
“The ones that came back to us with a list of things that they would like in their computer science education, we tried to fund as many things as possible,” Neeyanth said.
Expanding the availability of technology education to girls and other underserved groups, such as black, Latino, and low-income children, has been a core part of Girls Computing League’s mission since it was founded by Kavya, who still serves as the organization’s CEO despite now studying biology and computer science at Harvard University.
Profiled by the Fairfax County Times in September after winning a Davidson scholarship for her brain cancer research, Kavya organized the first Girls Computing League Artificial Intelligence Summit in 2017.
That first year primarily consisted of speakers coming in to talk to attendees, but based on the feedback they received, organizers decided to make the follow-up event more interactive, enlisting graphics processing unit manufacturer Nvidia and the education nonprofit AI4ALL to conduct demonstrations.
In the lead up to the 2018 summit, Girls Computing League hosted an Idea-thon where students could send in pitches for how artificial intelligence could be implemented in healthcare, finance, and business.
Winning individuals and teams were awarded cash prizes ranging from $50 to $100 during the summit.
This year’s keynote speakers included Nvidia senior solutions architect May Casterline, Google research director Peter Norvig, WebMD chief medical officer John Whyte, and Accenture chief technology officer Dominic Delmolino.
According to Neeyanth, Girls Computing League raised about $70,000 from sponsors to support the Artificial Intelligence Summit, fund the FCPS Title I school donations, and to contribute money to help a handful of colleges start their own A.I. summits.
AbleVets, an information technology and engineering company based in Chantilly, gave $5,000 that will go toward Weyanoke’s robotics club and an artificial intelligence summit scheduled to take place at the University of Virginia in January.
According to Kavya, the Girls Computing League is also helping fund artificial intelligence summits at Princeton University, the Georgia Institute of Technology, Rice University, and Virginia Commonwealth University next year.
AbleVets chief technology officer Wendell Ocasio focused specifically on the use of technology in the healthcare industry when addressing summit attendees.
He says understanding technology has become increasingly important for all students regardless of whether they want to become a developer or pursue a career in computer science, since it influences everything from how people communicate to the delivery of medicine.
“We have to look past simply using technology to enable us to do the same things we’ve been doing,” Ocasio said. “We want to be able to use technology and artificial intelligence to allow us to do things that are yet to be imagined…We are just beginning to take advantage of technology, but this generation really can take us to the next level.”