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Big Tech, Community Colleges Partnering in Education


Neethi Anand Gangidi came from India to the United States to study chemical engineering. But when the Covid-19 pandemic created difficulties for her doctoral studies, she changed direction by studying artificial intelligence, or AI, at Houston Community College (HCC) in Texas.

At HCC, Gangidi and a team of students worked on a difficult problem: finding ways to help keep people safe in dangerous situations, such as school shootings. Their solution used AI to develop an autonomous vehicle to enter areas that are too dangerous for people. Gangidi’s team won a national innovation award for their project at Intel’s Global Impact Festival in San Jose, California, this year.

Gangidi is one of thousands of students involved in partnerships between large technology companies and community colleges in the U.S. Companies such as Dell Technologies, Intel, Google, and Amazon have developed special training programs for students. Some areas of study include artificial intelligence, data science, and user experience design.

Community colleges offer two-year associate degrees in many technical and liberal arts subjects.

The American Association of Community Colleges, or AACC, says there are 1,043 community colleges in the U.S. In the last 10 years, an average of more than 80,000 international students have attended community colleges yearly in the U.S.

The increase in AI

The use of AI, also called machine learning, is growing. AI helps computer systems do things which in the past only human beings could do, such as identify faces.

AI is commonly used in work which uses lots of data, such as banking, supplying materials and products, and healthcare. But now other areas, such as natural language processing, also use the technology. AI is even used in artistic work such as music composition.

A 2021 study found that 43 percent of businesses reported increased use of AI in the last year. However, 39 percent of leaders at those companies said lack of workers with AI training was a barrier to using the technology.

Intel’s AI for Workforce Program

In early 2020, Intel began its AI for Workforce program, which has now partnered with 74 community colleges in 32 states. Intel provides content for AI classes, AI lab design and technology, training for teachers, and practical applications for areas such as computer vision.

The company hopes to have partnerships in all 50 states by the end of 2023.

Dell Technologies has partnered with Intel to help pay for the Artificial Intelligence Incubator Network. The Network has given $40,000 grants to 10 community colleges to help build AI laboratories. The Network also supports virtual AI training and organizes monthly meetings between Dell, Intel, and community colleges to help improve AI education.

Adrienne Garber is a Senior Strategist for Higher Education at Dell Technologies. She told VOA Learning English that the AI for Workforce program gives students practical training.

“The AI for Workforce curriculum is anchored in portfolio projects, real-world authentic learning experiences, real data sets, and problems that are contributed by a community of practice.”

Previous AI for Global Impact winners are greeted by Intel CEO Pat Gelsinger at the Intel Vision event in May 2022 (Credit: Intel Corporation)

Previous AI for Global Impact winners are greeted by Intel CEO Pat Gelsinger at the Intel Vision event in May 2022 (Credit: Intel Corporation)

Carlos Contreras is the director of Intel’s AI for Workforce program. He noted that the program includes training in ethics, making it different from other kinds of technology training. The AI training asks students to think about when it is right or wrong to use machine learning and how people should use it.

He also noted that students can begin AI training without knowing how to write computer code. He said, “This is a trend that we’re seeing more and more around this technology. So, the entry point to get into AI is lower than if you want to get into, let’s say, cyber-security.”

While students do not need to learn how to create AI software, the training helps them use it in useful ways. For example, in Arizona, a team of three students at Maricopa Community College developed an AI model to help identify seizures in patients with epilepsy. Epilepsy is a disease that affects the central nervous system.

Contreras explained that students need to know how to define the problem they are working on, identify and classify the data sets they need to put into the AI computer models, and then run the models.

“And then all the sudden, I have a trained model, or my process, for the problem I’m trying to solve.”

Garber, of Dell Technologies, noted that each community college can choose how it wants to use the AI for Workforce program. Instead of having one curriculum for all colleges, the program can be changed to serve the needs of each community.

“They’re figuring out where in their academic pathways does this content fit. So, it might be a certificate program, it might be an associate’s degree — in some cases it’s a full bachelor’s degree…And it is a very responsive learning content package.”

Gangidi’s path of study

Neethi Anand Gangidi (Courtesy photo, Neethi Anand Gangidi)

Neethi Anand Gangidi (Courtesy photo, Neethi Anand Gangidi)

Neethi Anand Gangidi explained to VOA Learning English some of the details of AI training at Houston Community College. Students first learn to analyze and organize information. Python is the software commonly used and is a starting point for classes in basic data science.

“And it is very easy for any individual from any country to learn about this. You have lots of videos on that…Just install it; download it. That’s all you need. You need access. Start exploring.”

Gangidi said knowledge of statistics is helpful for working with data, but that students usually do not need high level mathematics such as calculus.

For the class, Introduction to Machine Learning, Gangidi learned how to build models to deal with a larger amount of data. She said tools from Amazon Web Services, Nvidia, and software such as Jupyter Notebook help students work with data faster and at a higher level.

HCC gave her a real data project to work on to help her use the AI training. Gangidi said that working on a real project helps students gain experience, which employers value.

From left: students Igor Lucic, Denzel Wilson, Clark Horak, Dina Marie Stager, Neethianand Gangidi, and Ayomide Sofunwa, and Samir Saber, dean of Houston Community College Digital and Information Technology /center of Excellence. (photo courtesy of Houston Community College Southwest Communications)

From left: students Igor Lucic, Denzel Wilson, Clark Horak, Dina Marie Stager, Neethianand Gangidi, and Ayomide Sofunwa, and Samir Saber, dean of Houston Community College Digital and Information Technology /center of Excellence. (photo courtesy of Houston Community College Southwest Communications)

Advice for students

Gangidi says students should put their effort into their passion, or strong interests, rather than being concerned about the name of the university they choose to attend in the U.S.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re from Stanford, or Harvard, or community college. It all depends upon each individual.”

She was interested in HCC because it gave her the opportunity to work in teams on real problems, use innovation, and gain leadership experience.

She added that community colleges cost less to attend than four-year universities. In Texas, international students can also qualify for in-state tuition, the amount that someone living in the state pays to attend. This, along with scholarships, reduced her tuition costs from about $12,000 per semester to about $2,000 per semester.

In addition to Neethi Anand’s team, another team of students at HCC won a global award at this year’s Global Impact Festival. The team used AI to develop an autonomous drone to enter dangerous places.

Gangidi thinks there are many job opportunities for people who learn to work with data. She said, “If you know how to handle data, and if you have a passion…anything in AI, how to handle, analyze these data, and make a good story of the data—that’s easy, you can land up in an AI job in any big company over there.”

I’m Andrew Smith. And I’m Caty Weaver.

Andrew Smith wrote this story for VOA Learning English.

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Words in This Story

doctoral –adj. related to the highest degree given for completing a course of study at a university

autonomous –adj. able to act separately under its own power

innovation –n. a new idea or device; the process of making new things

seizure –n. an abnormal state in which a person loses consciousness and the body moves uncontrollably

trend –n. the general movement of change

classify –v. to place something in a particular group in an effort to organize things

curriculum –n. the plan of study and a school, college or university

content –n. ideas and information in media

access –n. the ability to get or get into something

statistics –n. a mathematical field which deals with the collection, organization and understanding of numerical information

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