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Diversity Inspires Innovation: Raising Up the Next Generation of Engineering Innovators

This past month, I was able to speak at the National Academy of Engineering’s Global Grand Challenge Scholars Program (GCSP) on how our IHAWKe Diversity & Women’s Programs are using hackathons, or IHAWKe-a-Thons, to innovate for Hurricane victims and also for helping workers with intellectual and developmental disabilities in the workplace. The students working on this project belong to the Society of Women Engineers (SWE), National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE), Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers (SHPE), American Indian Science and Engineering Society (AISES), and KU Women in Computing (KUWIC). The National Academy of Engineering recognizes that the next generation of engineers will have to skills to solve complex, multidisciplinary, interconnected, multicultural engineering challenges that our traditional model of educating engineers falls short. The five engineering competencies for this type of Grand Challenge Scholar are:

  • Social conscientiousness – engineering solutions should serve people and society in a thoughtful way
  • Multicultural competency – understanding that an engineering solution has to take into different cultures for acceptance and effectiveness
  • Viable business/entrepreneurship – knowing how to think about an engineering solution’s business viability
  • Multidisciplinary competency – knowing how to think outside of one’s engineering discipline to create interconnected solutions
  • Talent competency – being mentored in research and creative design experiences.

Our IHAWKe Diversity and Women’s Programs is aiming towards participating in the Grand Challenge Scholars program to equip our students to solve the energy, infrastructure, health, sustainability, water, and other grand challenges for our future. It will take a diversity of ideas, experiences, skills, and backgrounds to do that. That’s why we continue to believe and nurture diversity in our engineering and computing students. Because diversity inspires innovation that will change the world.

About the Author: Dr. Andrew B. Williams is the Associate Dean for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusive and Spahr Professor of Electrical Engineering & Computer Science at the University of Kansas. Dr. Williams began and now directs the IHAWKe (Indigenous, Hispanic, African American, Women, KU Engineering) program and building on the 40+ year old Diversity and Women’s program at KU Engineering that first gave him an introduction to engineering several years ago as a first generation, low income college student.

Copyright 2018 Andrew B. Williams, Ph.D.

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Seeing Innovation in Their Eyes: KUEST to Engineering

“I want you to now design an app that will meet the community needs you identified.” When I shared that to the group of around 160 ninth graders from Kansas City Kansas Schlagle High School, I could see it in their eyes. “You want ME, to design this app?” The boys and girls began to straighten up in their chairs. The looks in their eyes had looks of expectation and curiosity. I wondered how many of them pictured themselves as creators of technology before I gave them the opportunity to do so in a low-fidelity app prototype design exercise.

Our KUEST program (KU Engineering, Science, and Technology, pronounced “quest”), is designed to give students from low-income, first-generation, and minority students from middle school to high school, the opportunity to learn how to be engineering and computing creators.

For a majority of these high school first-year students, they had never visited the University of Kansas School of Engineering. And many of them still have a difficult time envisioning themselves as college students. We had KU engineering and computing students, most of them from low-income, first-generation, and minority families themselves, spoke with them about why and how they went to college in spite of the challenges they had to overcome to get to KU. The Schlagle ninth graders also learned about how fun it was to be in college at the University of Kansas.

We are excited and grateful to the industry, such as Halliburton and ExxonMobil, and other alumni donor support that we receive to be able to have programs to introduce and engage these students in engineering. To see “engineering innovation in their eyes” for the first time with the hope that soon they will be at KU studying engineering makes it all worthwhile.

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Engineering to Help Workers with Disabilities: IHAWKe-A-Thon 2018

Diversity inspires innovation. Our IHAWKe engineering students spent this weekend discovering the needs of workers with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD) and created solution prototypes to meet the needs, thanks to the support of IBM Analytics in Leawood, Kansas. They spent time creating empathy maps and observations from workers at Cottonwood Industries, a place that employs persons with IDD.

One of the surprising motivations for the students was their desire that the workers have fun, social interactions while at work. Our IHAWKe students used design thinking to define life changing “how might we” statements, ideation, and prototypes that included emotion and sentiment reading detection devices with a holographic user interface.

Some of the IHAWKE team solutions focused on the physical aspects of the disabilities. One solution was a clever application of a humanoid robot assistant.

The independence and health of the workers was pinpointed as the students listened to interviews of Cottonwood workers. So the students came up with an exoskeleton-type worker to protect from repetitive stress injuries.

Dr. Ken Fischer, Director of KU’s Bioengineering Program and Professor in Mechanical Engineering, Dr. Chenyun Pan, KU EECS, Dr. Mayank Raj, IBM, John from Cerner, Anita from Kansas City Public Schools, and Jill and Kara from Cottonwood provided feedback and advice.

IBM generously provided prizes to the students including ones for the most innovative designs and improvisations.

Students from Society of Women Engineers (SWE), National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE) , and KU Women in Computing (KUWIC) along with two students from Haskell Indian Nations University participated. The students were in diverse majors including aerospace engineering, computer science, architectural engineering, mechanical engineering, chemical engineering and information technology. Our IHAWKe students are changing the world with their engineering and computing education and showing how diversity inspires innovation.

About the Author: Dr. Andrew B. Williams is the Associated Dean for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusive and Spahr Professor of Electrical Engineering & Computer Science at the University of Kansas. Dr. Williams began and directs the IHAWKe (Indigenous, Hispanic, African American, Women, KU Engineering) program and building on the 40+ year old Diversity and Women’s program at KU Engineering that first gave him is introduction to engineering several years ago as a first generation, low income student.

Copyright 2018 Andrew B. Williams, Ph.D.

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Computer Science, Design Thinking, Education, Engineering, Entrepreneurship, Innovation, STEM

Ta-Da! Learning 8 Core Design Abilities

This week I was reunited with our January 2017 Teaching and Learning Studio (TLS) alumni from our TLS workshop at Stanford’s dSchool.  This year we met at University of Maryland’s Academy for Entreprenuership and Innovation.  It was a time to go beyond our five design thinking phases to the 8 Core Design Abilities.

When teaching students, such our KU IHAWKe leaders, or training professionals, we need to use these skills that I first heard back in 2017 and practiced this week at Maryland:

  • Build and craft intentionally
  • Synthesize information
  • Communicate deliberately
  • Move between concrete and abstract
  • Experiment rapidly
  • Learn from others (people & contexts)
  • Design your design work
  • Navigate ambiguity.

Engineers and computer scientists not only need to know the fundamentals of our disciplines but how to creatively approach designing solutions with human needs at the forefront.  We had fun at the “Ta-Da” version of TLS doing a Process Remix with interactive tools such as “Zoom In, Zoom Out”, “Wall Flower”, and “Shape Shift”.  Thanks Stanford dSchool and UMD Academy for Entrepreneurship and Innovation (Leticia, Dean, Erica, Meenu, Bre, Brooke, Mira, and Tim) for giving us a refreshed design perspective to bring back to our universities and students!

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Ai, Artificial Intelligence, Computer Science, Engineering, Robotics, Technology, Uncategorized

The AI Divide: Living in an Age Where You are the Product

I believe I may have coined a new term, the AI Divide, in my paper titled, The Potential Societal Impact of the AI Divide (at least when I googled the term prior to submitting the article). About two weeks ago, I shared a paper and presentation on the AI Divide at the American Association for Artificial Intelligence (AAAI) Spring Symposium on AI and Society: Ethics, Safety, and Trustworthiness in Intelligent Agents held at Stanford University. My paper and presentation discussed what the AI Divide is and asked the following questions:

  • Does an AI Divide exist?
  • Are there populations that are negatively impacted by the AI Divide?
  • Should there be public policy that will protect “AI-marginalized” populations?
  • Should we provide AI Literacy for all citizens?
  • Will the AI Divide continue to increase or shrink?

These are questions that will need continued discussion, exploration, and answers. The Digital Divide began in the 80’s with the advent of the personal PC and later the Internet and the disparities in access to computing devices, fast Internet, and access to internet-accessible knowledge sources. This has helped contribute to socio-economic disparities including education quality, college readiness and career outlook and income.

The AI Divide is developing because AI is becoming more and more ubiquitous in our daily lives. AI is becoming increasingly ubiquitous in e-commerce (e.g. Amazon), natural language recognition (e.g. Siri), social media (e.g. Facebook), information technology, and even wearable tech (e.g. Apple Watch). Several startups and automakers want to make AI ubiquitous in driverless cars, although lately Uber and Tesla have had untimely deaths related to the AI involved in driverless cars.

Before this week, I saw the AI Product Cycle involving people as consumers of AI products, and companies that develop and control the hardware, data, and algorithms as the producers of AI products. People interact with this hardware to generate data closely tied to their emotions and behavior, which are in turned used by companies’ algorithms to produce AI-enabled products (e.g. Facebook app).

But as we are seeing recently, companies such as Facebook, are using people’s personal data to fuel their social network algorithms to influence people’s behavior. In this case, influencing voter behavior, as well as their purchasing behavior. But Facebook is not unique. Other big companies, including the usual suspects (e.g.Google) are doing the same to monetize these algorithms by using ads to influence behavior.

One user said it best in an online interview about Facebook’s tactics and said that he realized that he is the product. His data was being sold so that others could feed their psychographic machine learning algorithms to know how to best exploit his personal information to make him vote or buy the way the company wanted him to. What he said raises the question: Are YOU the product of these companies that use your data and AI algorithms to influence YOUR behavior?

The AI Divide is the split between the companies that own the hardware, data, algorithms, and applications that you and I use, so that they can exploit our emotions and behavior and those of us that down own them. Most people are AI illiterate and don’t understand the basics of how their data is used, nor how these machine learning algorithms work. The disparity between those who create, own, use, and understand these algorithms and those who don’t is the AI divide and has potential to create disparities in quality of health, safety and security, and prosperity.

Unlike the digital divide, the AI divide won’t necessarily exist along racial, socio-economic, or even political and educational lines. The AI Divide can exist across these lines between the producers/owners of the hardware, data, algorithms, and applications of AI and those that are only the consumers, and in some cases, the living and breathing “products” sold and influenced by AI.

What can be done to address the AI divide? Those are the answers we need to decide on before it’s too late.

Andrew B. Williams, Ph.D., is Associate Dean for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion for the School of Engineering and the Charles E. And Mary Jane Spahr Professor in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, at the University of Kansas (KU). Dr. Williams is also Director of the Humanoid Engineering & Intelligent Robotics (HEIR) Lab at KU.

© 2018 Andrew B. Williams

This article was written on April 9, 2018.

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diversity, Education, Engineering, Innovation, STEM, Technology

Knowledge is Power Especially When Shared

This week, our IHAWKe students were able to visit high school students at a KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) school in Houston,Texas, as part of our Tiny Homes for the Hurricane Homeless project.  It was especially meaningful for Rajanee, one of our NSBE students, since she attended a KIPP middle school in Kansas City, Missouri and is now studying mechanical engineering at KU. Rajanee is able to attend KU because of a generous KU engineering alum’s establishment of a KIPP scholarship for our School of Engineering.

Our IHAWKe students were able to share one-on-one and in small groups with the KIPP students, what the experience of studying engineering and computing at KU is like, how they decided to become an engineer, and how they overcame obstacles in their pursuit of engineering. For the KIPP students, it was an unusual opportunity to get to meet and ask questions with someone close to their age about engineering and its benefits.

For our IHAWKe students, it was also an opportunity to share about their Tiny House for the Hurricane Homeless project with the KIPP students. The KIPP students were learning how students from architectural engineering, information technology, electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, chemical engineering, and other disciplines at KU are working together to imagine and build solutions for those who are impacted by hurricanes. Our IHAWKe students were also able to observe and learn first hand the lasting impact of Hurricane Harvey and gained insight into the trauma and hardships some people are still facing because of it.

One of the KIPP students, I’ll call her Sarah, said she wanted to become an electrical engineer, because her Dad was an electrician. Her story resonated with me because she said there were six kids in her family. My oldest brother was the first in our family to go to college and he paved the way for the rest of us to consider college. My hope is that Sarah will find her path to college as she plans to attend community college first and then pursue her engineering degree. It would be wonderful if we were somehow able to help her with the challenges she faces to becoming an engineer. And we were all pleased that we could help share some of our engineering, computing, and life knowledge with these KIPP students. Because knowledge is power especially when its shared with those who need it most.

Rock Chalk, Jayhawk!

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Computer Science, diversity, Education, Engineering, Innovation, STEM

Katherine Johnson Scholar Sisters Are Future Princess Shuri STEM Stars

On Friday, our KU IHAWKe program hosted 15 Katherine Johnson Scholar Sisters from Wichita, Kansas to our NEST (Novel Engineering Studio for Technology and the Humanoid Engineering & Intelligent Robotics (HEIR) Lab.  The excitement of the girls seeing our newest humanoid Pepper robot, we named RoRo, was evident when one of the young ladies shouted, “Wow! I’ve never seen a real robot before!” The group’s founder and leader, Janice Hardeman, started the group as a way to inspire these young, African American girls to pursue their dreams and education in STEM. She wanted these girls to follow in the footsteps of NASA pioneer, Katherine Johnson, highlighted in the Hidden Figures movie. IHAWKe and the KU School of Engineering were honored to be able to support the group by providing a bus and lunch for the girls for their two and a half hour trip to KU.

One of our KU IHAWKe students, Rosa, shared her experience being a KU Engineering student and how she was able to combine her love of art and passion for helping others as a new Architectural Engineering student at KU.  Now the Katherine Johnson Scholar Sisters have role models in Katherine Johnson, Disney Princess Shuri from the Black Panther movie, and Rosa. They can begin to dream of becoming an inventor, engineer, and computing whiz like the Disney portrayed Princess Shuri. Princess Shuri created physics-enabled inventions for Wakanda using the fictional element of Vibranium. Let these girls dream and become part of our next generation of STEM stars!

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