California Researchers Use A.I. To Amplify STEM Mentorship

March 1, 2021 will enable STEM experts to build their own virtual mentor online.

Projections indicate that between 400,000 and 2 million science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) positions in the U.S. may be unfilled by 2025, according to the University of Southern California (USC). A major challenge to building a robust STEM workforce is promoting entry, retention and persistence of undergraduate students, as less than half of college entrants intending to major in a STEM field complete a STEM degree. Underserved students are particularly at risk for attrition from STEM disciplines. Although mentoring can improve retention and diversity of students in STEM fields, it reportedly is difficult to make mentors widely available. 

An interdisciplinary project between researchers at USC and California State University, Fullerton (CSUF) is studying ways to mitigate these challenges through virtual agents that amplify the effects of STEM mentors. The project, entitled " Increasing Connections to Fast-Growing STEM Careers," is funded by a three-year grant from the Department of Defense's National Defense Education Program (NDEP) for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) Education, Outreach, and Workforce Initiative Programs, totaling $2.6 million. Benjamin Nye, director of learning sciences at the USC Institute for Creative Technologies (ICT), William Swartout, chief technology officer at USC ICT and Yuko Okado, assistant professor of psychology at CSUF are the principal investigators.

USC ICT will develop, a web-based platform, where: a) students can interact for free with virtual STEM professionals in DoD priority areas and b) STEM professionals can build their own intelligent mentors. These "virtual mentors" use machine-learning to identify the most appropriate response to an input question among video-recorded answers, which enables a simulated conversation with mentors. The set of mentors will grow through agent-authoring technology that allows real-life STEM professionals to widely disseminate their career insights and experiences. The goal of the project will be to develop a sustainable, extensible virtual career fair where students can, free-of-charge and 24/7, talk (in simulated conversations) to a diverse array of professionals to learn about different pathways to STEM careers.

"The goal is to build an amplifier – a way for real mentors to reach a large number of students," Nye says. "A virtual mentor can't answer every question a student has, but it can still give them a conversation personalized to their own questions. More than that, we can look at what new questions people are asking and try to get new questions answered to help them."

CSUF will research the benefits and impact of these mentors, specifically at public institutions in California with a high density of underserved or underrepresented college students (e.g., first-generation, low-income and/or racial/ethnic minority). In this role, CSUF will also help develop collaborative partnerships among key stakeholders, such as students, university organizations and STEM professionals and recruiters in highest-demand sectors. CSUF, which will conduct the initial testing of the technology prior to dissemination to other institutions, is a Hispanic-serving institution that is ranked No. 3 in the nation by Diverse Issues in Higher Education for awarding baccalaureate degrees to underrepresented students.

"We are recruiting a diverse set of mentors for this project, so students can find and interview mentors that match what they are looking for.  This could be a match in terms of the type of occupation, educational background, cultural background or personality, among other factors," Okado says. "Our goal is to increase access to mentors and open more doors for all students, including those in non-STEM disciplines, to consider STEM-related career opportunities."

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