Google Week: A Collaboration between the Pitt Hill CEC and School 2 Career

The month of July marked the return of in-person programming to the Pitt CEC in the Hill District. A facet of our July programming was the School2TechCareer initiative, a collaboration between the Pitt CEC and School 2 Career. School 2 Career (S2C) is an Oakland Planning and Development Corporation (OPDC) youth program geared towards serving underserved youth, many from the West Oakland and the Hill District area, preparing them for college and career success. School 2 Career was an outgrowth of the Breachmenders program, founded in the West Oakland Area on Robinson Street, once a primarily Black area, viewed by many as a part of the Hill District.

The School2TechCareer initiative conceived by the Pitt CEC and School 2 Career introduced eleven high school students to careers in the tech industry. Nine of the high schoolers were Hill District residents. Each week in July was dedicated to a specific topic: cybersecurity, IT Help Desk, programming, and artificial intelligence.

Google Week, a program delivered as a facet of the School2TechCareer initiative, began with a two-part seminar on artificial intelligence led by Dr. Illah R. Nourbakhsh, the K&L Gates Professor of Ethics and Computational Technologies at Carnegie Mellon University, and Dr. Jennifer Keating, Senior Lecturer and the Writing in the Disciplines Specialist in the William S. Dietrich II Institute for Writing Excellence.

Dr. Nourbaksh and Keating co-wrote the book AI & Humanity, exploring how artificial intelligence influences our society from politics to culture. It combines techniques from computer science’s technical analysis with literary and cultural studies analysis, helping make sense of how AI shapes the world. The book also serves as a course textbook for a course the two professors teach. They condensed the key concepts from their book to deliver the two-part seminar they taught at the Pitt CEC. Throughout the two sessions, students explored the various types of intelligence, bots, robots, AI in the healthcare industry, and the ethical implications of artificial intelligence.

During the first session, students interacted with ELIZA, an early chatbot created by Joseph Weizenbaum. ELIZA is a chatbot meant to mimic the role of a psychotherapist. The interaction with ELIZA helped provide the students with relevant experience to answer one of the seminars prevailing questions: Is an artificial intelligence system capable of care? Interacting with ELIZA; revealed a common theme: ELIZA did not respond directly to questions. For example, if a student asked ELIZA, how are you? ELIZA responds: why are you interested in whether I am?

Dr. Illah R. Nourbakhsh teaching a student how to use record audio using Audacity.

ELIZA was programmed to mimic Rogerian Therapy, a patient-directed therapy approach allowing patients to explore their thoughts and feelings; patients will then conclude how to bring about positive change. The students were not privy to that information; students engaged with ELIZA as a patient seeking therapy. They asked ELIZA questions, but it was a frustrating experience. Following the principle of Rogerian Therapy, it did not answer questions directly, opting to rephrase questions. Perceived as snarkiness, the lack of answers only angered the students.

Despite the frustration, they loved interacting with ELIZA; they competed to see who could create the worst conversation. The interaction with ELIZA served multiple purposes; it showed students the advances made in chatbot software, the potential limitations of artificial intelligence in one aspect of healthcare, and how artificial intelligence can mimic intelligence by making users frustrated.

The last session about artificial intelligence took place on Friday. Using podcast kits and Audacity software, students created a digital artifact concerning artificial intelligence. Students chose to record an instruction manual for a future artificial intelligence system or record interaction between a future artificial intelligence and a human user.

Another facet of Google Week was an introduction to programming led by Google. This five-part series featured lessons introducing students to programming using Micro: Bits, a relatively inexpensive microcontroller developed by the British Broadcasting Corporation. The micro: bits featured LEDs, buttons, sensors (accelerometer, temperature, light, compass, touch), speaker, microphone, radio, and pins. The microcontroller was programmed using Microsoft MakeCode, a block-based programming language like Scratch.

Pitt CEC collaborated with Google to deliver this program. Google provided the CEC with Micro: Bits; they also provided instruction for the program via Google Meet. The staff of School 2 Career and the Pitt CEC served as the in-person facilitators of the program. The in-person facilitators ensured the students followed instructions, resolved technical issues, and kept students engaged with the material. The Googlers created a curriculum that introduced programming fundamentals while integrating physical components of the Mirco: Bits. For example, students created a compass: this activity combined a magnetometer with Boolean logic and relational operators.

The first day of the program proved to be a pivotal moment; students learned how to set up and download a program to a micro: bit. They also completed two activities: the emotions badge and the name badge. The emotions badge and the name badge were very similar activities: the former showed students how to use the LED screen to display icons, the latter showed students how to display a string (their name) on the LED screen.

Two students using MakeCode to program their Micro: bits.

We began the program as planned with the Googlers leading instruction and the in-person facilitators assisting struggling students. After thirty minutes, it was evident that the hybrid model posed unforeseen challenges. There was not enough communication between the in-person team and the Googlers who were assisting virtually, so the Googlers could not gauge the atmosphere in the room. The lack of communication made it difficult for them to know whether the students had completed the tasks. It was evident that we needed to regroup to make our program more effective.

Realizing there needed to be a change in the delivery of the course, I leveraged my role as the STEAM Ambassador to develop a new strategy with the Google team. After a five-minute discussion, we developed a comprehensive plan to improve the delivery of the course.

The in-person facilitators would control the pacing of the activity by accurately gauging students’ progress with each step. They [the Googlers] could only continue to the next step once they had received feedback from the in-person facilitators. Assigned to a table, the facilitators would assist struggling students. I would poll the class to ensure that every student had completed the step. I would also serve as a conduit, communicating questions and concerns to the Googlers and vice versa.

Jeremy Blache-Schwartz, S2C’s
Manager of Education and Special Programs, assisting a student.

The adjustments improved the atmosphere drastically; students completed the activity with relative ease. They engaged more with the material, asking questions, assisting their peers, and exploring improvements to the emoticon badge. Some students coded programmed tunes to supplement the emoticons displayed on the LCD screen.

After the first day of the program, I met with the lead instructor of the Google Team: Ade. We talked about how the changes allowed the quality of instruction. We decided to approach all our lessons that way until it became evident we needed to adjust to new challenges. The changes allowed students to follow instructions with little assistance. It also made the lessons more approachable; pauses naturally broke down the content into digestible bites. The Googlers also emphasized using popular technologies as examples to make the topics more approachable. Together, we were able to empower the students to continue to explore programming because they would have a space to troubleshoot issues they may face while coding without fear of being left behind.

We continued to adapt to the needs to the needs of the students. One such adaptation we made was to assign groups to rooms in the Pitt CEC because students were struggled with having the break-out rooms in one location. They had trouble following instructions because of audio interference from other groups and vision problems due to the small laptop monitors. We used the audiovisual systems in the available rooms to mitigate these issues.

Conference room being used during breakout sessions.

At the end of the week, students were comfortable with the fundamentals of coding. On the last day, students created projects where they deploy their newly acquired skills. They programmed a video game similar to pong, using LCD screens, loops, and variables. A musical composition was the subject of another group’s project. The final group explored the radio capability of the micro: Bit, creating a program that allowed two micro: bits to communicate with one another.

Despite the initial problems we faced, Google Week was a resounding success. We were able to adapt and overcome challenges we did not foresee. Google Week was fun; learning about artificial intelligence and its immense potential to change society; creating unique programs using micro: bits and MakeCode; and seeing the pride students took in their work. The students enjoyed their time at the Pitt CEC and sharing their experiences.

Reflecting upon the week, it became clear that the program was a portion of the overall vision of Pitt CEC’s & New Grenada’s STEAM. Google Week simultaneously introduced high school students to AI and programming and built interest in tech careers. Google Week was a part of the pipeline empowering students to challenge themselves with STEAM-related programs and classes, so they can go on to have fruitful careers in the tech industry. It makes STEAM more accessible for individuals who may not have privy to such an experience without the Pitt CEC. Most of all, I am grateful to be a part of their (the students) journey to find a career they truly enjoy, and hopefully, it’s STEAM-related.

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