Diversity in STEM: An Insight with Jennifer Flanagan

Small Business Canada

In an enlightening interview with CanadianSME Small Business Magazine, Jennifer Flanagan, the dynamic CEO & President of Actua, passionately conveyed the essence of technological equity and the pivotal role of diversity in STEM. Drawing parallels between the integration of AI in education and the introduction of calculators in the past, she suggests the once-feared tools can eventually become invaluable assets. Open communication, Jennifer stresses, is the cornerstone of responsible tech usage. While platforms like Chat GPT must ensure online safety, parents should guide children in digital responsibility. As the future unfolds, STEM education, blending technical know-how with soft skills, will be the key. AI’s potential, she believes, can revolutionize personalized learning and open doors to new career horizons.

Jennifer is an expert at youth engagement with 20+years of experience. As an advocate for youth STEM education in Canada, focusing on marginalized groups, she knows how to equip youth with knowledge and skills for the future. In this segment, Jennifer would be able to share her same wisdom with others as they embark on their own personal educational endeavours.

With your extensive background in youth STEM education and insights on AI platforms, how can we ensure these technologies benefit marginalized groups while also maintaining online safety and preparing for future challenges?

    Working toward technology equity is essential. Achieving greater diversity across STEM fields is not only about what is good for those populations, but it is also an essential part of reaching our innovation potential as a country and it’s a big part of why we at Actua do what we do. 

    Diversity provides different perspectives; and for something like AI development, this can mitigate bias within AI-generated systems. We do our work at Actua to ensure we are preparing a diverse workforce to lead in areas like AI. Amongst users, including young users, we must promote digital and AI literacy, especially for equity deserving groups. This includes providing the tools, training and resources so they can successfully and safely use and lead in new technology. Without this, the digital divide between those with access and those without will only grow.  

    Part of Actua’s work in engaging equity deserving youth is in educating them with the tools they need to stay safe online. This will not only ensure their positive experience with technology but will help them bring these security mindsets into their future work. 

    From a high-level perspective, Actua is partnering with industry, educators and governments to look at all aspects of AI – from its development to policies and legislation, to its implementation and training on its usage to ensure equity, diversity and inclusion is a consideration at every step. We all have a role to play in ensuring these new and exciting tools are available to everyone, used responsibly and to mitigate any related negative outcomes.

    How can we introduce AI in classrooms without compromising academic integrity and the quality of education?

      It is an exciting time in education with the further introduction of technology tools into classrooms. It is also a time when careful planning, ongoing monitoring and a commitment to ethical and responsible use from students and educators is essential. Technology like the AI-driven Chat GPT is not going away. We need to embrace it and develop appropriate guidelines on its usage within educational institutions. This will mean training educators on how it can enhance their teaching and work with youth.

      Many teachers are getting more comfortable with generative AI tools like Chat GPT and are finding ways to help their students engage with it while mitigating the fears around cheating. In a lot of ways, it’s like when calculators were introduced into classrooms, or when students began using Google for research. These tools were initially seen as a threat to learning, but with time, exposure and understanding, their benefits soon outweighed the perceived risks they posed. I believe the same is true with AI.

      As technology integrates rapidly into education, how can parents, educators, and youth ensure shared values and best practices?

        Communication is the key here! Ongoing, open communication between parents, educators and youth about the benefits and limitations of technology is the foundation of safe and responsible use of technology.

        For parents, it starts with their own education on emerging technologies so that they can stay informed about how to use these tools and understand considerations around safety, privacy and security. Open communication between themselves and their children is critical in order to quickly respond when their children need help or are facing challenges, but also to foster a positive attitude toward new technology. In an ever-evolving digital world – this is a great attitude to have.

        For educators, training or professional development on AI tools is useful in understanding best practices around the technology. This will also help them use these tools to enhance their teaching and help them support their students to use these tools successfully and responsibly. I also encourage educators to incorporate digital literacy and responsible tech use into their classrooms and be mindful of students with varying levels of technology access and skills.

        What role should parents play in ensuring their children are responsible users and creators of classroom technology?

          Parents and caregivers can help their children become responsible digital citizens through open, honest and empowering conversations. Never approach these conversations with fear or judgment so that your children know they can talk to you about anything they are experiencing or mistakes they may have made. Help them understand how to use these tools in ways that enhance their learning, and not as a tool that can do their work for them. If there are policies and guidelines already in place at their school, parents should ensure their children understand them. 

          How can platforms like ChatGPT guarantee online safety for kids? What guidance should parents and teachers follow?

            Platforms like Chat GPT can create a safer online environment for youth by exploring options like age restrictions, content filtering, safety settings including parental controls, and providing education and guidance directed at young users. This guidance should include how to report negative experiences youth may have on the platform. 

            Parents and teachers should focus on helping children gain digital literacy and critical thinking skills so they can learn how to use new technology in ways that will improve their lives, while also understanding and addressing the risks that exist around cybersecurity, bias and misinformation. Having open conversations with children about this in a way that empowers them to use these tools – and not in a way that fosters fear – will have a positive impact on their ability to use these tools safely and effectively.

            How can we prepare students for future jobs with the necessary technical and soft skills? How might AI aid in career readiness?

              One of the best ways to prepare students for future jobs is through access to STEM education. Growing their technical skills alongside human skills like confidence-building, self-awareness and critical thinking will set them up for future success. 

              AI can be a valuable tool in preparing individuals for successful and fulfilling careers. AI can provide personalized learning so youth can grow their knowledge on topics they are passionate about, while also introducing them to new topics of learning that could open their minds to career options they hadn’t considered before. AI can also help youth learn about best practices for job searching, resume or cover letter writing, or preparing for an interview. And don’t forget, AI itself is opening up a whole new world of jobs we haven’t imagined before. Besides new jobs related to AI development, there will be a need for people who specialize in AI ethics, training and education, among many more. The possibilities around career readiness and job opportunities that AI can provide are endless and exciting. 

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