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NC State colleges partner to prepare students for careers in AI and data science

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NC State College of Education Professor Carla Johnson is partnering with several national and international companies to help diversify the STEM workforce by preparing more than 30 people for careers in data science and artificial intelligence (AI). 

Johnson is the principal investigator on “Enabling Access for Historically Underserved and Underrepresented Groups to Experiential Learning and Credentials in Artificial Intelligence (ExLENT-AI),” which is funded by a $1 million National Science Foundation ExLENT grant. Through the project, she, along with Professor Min Chi and Associate Professor Collin Lynch from NC State’s College of Engineering, will develop an externship that provides experiential learning opportunities for people from a variety of different backgrounds – including low-income and first-generation students – to broaden access to STEM careers. 

“Disparate access to computer science education and tools continues to be an important equity issue. The digital divide, an opportunity gap for many economically disadvantaged students, continues to promulgate inequities in STEM,” Johnson said. “Providing active, experiential, mentored learning opportunities for individuals from underserved groups can enhance participation in STEM careers generally and can be particularly influential in fostering positive identities and dispositions toward computer science.” 

Through a partnership with Delta Airlines, Lexmark, Randstad and other organizations, Johnson and the project team will design and implement a 40-week externship program that includes weekly workshop sessions alongside industry mentoring, job shadowing and the ability for participants to work on real-world, authentic industry tasks with partner companies. 

“It is incredibly valuable for our participants to engage in authentic, real-world applications of the content and skills they are learning in our program. Our partners provide context for what people are learning and serve as important mentors and role models,” Johnson said. 

ExLENT-AI is an extension of Johnson’s work on the Artificial Intelligence (AI) Academy, which is preparing 5,000 individuals for roles in the field of artificial intelligence through a $6 million grant from the U.S. Department of Labor. However, while the AI Academy has only been available to current employees of partner companies as an on-the-job training program, the new project will target individuals who are historically excluded or underserved in STEM and currently unemployed or underemployed. 

In addition to using evidence-based best practices to attract and prepare a diverse group of learners to consider emerging technology careers, the ExLENT-AI project will also establish a community of learners through mentorship as well as support participants through their ultimate job search and placement process as they enter careers in the field. 

“Our program will provide a pathway to careers for these individuals which have the potential to transform their lives,” Johnson said.

This post was originally published in College of Education News.