Can Artificial Intelligence Bring Greater Equity to STEM? ETS Joins Federal Effort to Find Out

Staff Writer
2-15-23 MB-K12 Insider-AI-1245955129

The education organization ETS is joining a federally-funded effort to research and develop new artificial intelligence technologies aimed at helping traditionally underrepresented students access science, engineering, and math.

The nonprofit assessment provider — in partnership with the University of Illinois, Temple University, and the University of Florida — announced a new AI institute, which it says will collect large-scale datasets from more than 96,000 students across 24 school districts.

The institute is part of a broader, multi-agency effort to study the impact of AI across industries.

The goal of the education-focused program is to use the data with AI to create digital environments that infer individual students’ needs and adjust instruction, ultimately creating a more welcoming and inclusive environment, said Diego Zapata-Rivera, who serves as ETS Distinguished Presidential Appointee and who will be one of the institute’s co-directors.

“Systems that make use of AI, they will know more about students, more than just cognitive aspects,” Zapata-Rivera said in an interview. “One of the motivations for me to be part of this institute is the focus on using AI in a positive way, to help people learn and become more engaged.”

The use of AI has become a hotly debated question following the release of ChatGPT last fall, which thrust the technology into the public spotlight. While some educators are embracing the tool, districts such as New York City schools are banning its use.

With the new opportunities created by machine-learning models comes concerns about data privacy violations and bias, including the technology’s ability to present misinformation.

Searching for Patterns

Known as the INVITE (Inclusive and Intelligent Technologies for Education) Institute, the new work is supported by a 5-year, $20 million grant from the National Science Foundation — one in a series of significant investments from the federal government in researching AI. ETS itself will receive $3.25 million.

This year, the overall federal effort will funnel more than $140 million from the science foundation and other agencies — including the U.S. departments of defense, homeland security, and education — into seven national AI institutes, with a focus that spans across industries.

“It is a pressing need, making sure that AI can be used in responsible ways,” Zapata-Rivera said. “[This significant funding] means that the government is paying attention, and we fit that need and we are doing it.”

AI allows users to discover patterns, he said, so the institute’s scientists will look at questions such as: Where are we losing students? Where are students getting to the point that they disengage? What caused that? What interactions may not be useful?

ETS will be most involved in creating a learner modeling strand, he said, which fits with the type of research the organization is already doing.

This work is important to Zapata-Rivera, who was born in Colombia, because, “I am part of these communities.” Growing up, he had teachers and professors who inspired him to go into a STEM field. But he didn’t see many scientists who looked like him.

“I know it is very important for people to feel that they belong,” he said. “So it is a really cool part of what we can do, looking at new ways to improve or to support that kind of work.”

Follow EdWeek Market Brief on Twitter @EdMarketBrief or connect with us on LinkedIn.

Image by Getty

See also: