Equitech Scholars gathered for a six-week Global Summer Institute to learn from leading faculty about using data science and artificial intelligence to tackle societal challenges
As an English major from Bowdoin College, Montse Madrigal wanted to pursue a Ph.D. in English literature. But after auditing a statistics course at Riverside City College, a community college in her hometown of Los Angeles, she fell in love with data science. Montse wanted to dig deeper and wanted to explore how to use data science and AI to address policy questions in the United States.
However, most courses in data science are tailored to students with STEM degrees. When she found out about the EquiTech Scholars program she decided to apply, especially since it accepted applicants from all disciplines. “I wanted a space where I could learn the technical aspects of data science and AI and figure out how to apply these tools to real-world problems. Equitech Futures seemed like the perfect fit.”
As a first-generation college student from a non-STEM academic background, Montse is passionate about using data science tools to address policy questions around social inequality. “I am particularly interested in figuring out how to improve enrollment of women in STEM courses in community colleges” - which predominantly serve low-income students of color in the US. “I have always wondered how many innovations we lose out on because women - especially women of color - do not have the opportunity to explore STEM courses in community colleges.”
Montse is among the 17 scholars selected to be a part of the global Equitech Scholars program. The Equitech Scholars are a diverse group of young innovators who hail from 9 different countries, speaking over 20 languages and studying 11 different disciplines. They are driven by a passion to apply science and technology to tackle urgent societal challenges - from public health to education to climate change. The goal of the Equitech Scholars program is to accelerate the ambitions of these aspiring innovators and create a global network through which they can realize their potential and thrive through collaboration.
"I wanted a space where I could learn the technical aspects of data science and AI and figure out how to apply these tools to real-world problems. Equitech Futures seemed like the perfect fit."
— Montse Madrigal, EquiTech Scholar
“We are building a new kind of technology education platform that is problems-first: going beyond the silos of traditional university majors to build the multi-disciplinary skills needed to solve real-world problems,” said Abhilash Mishra, the founder of Equitech Futures. “There are young talented individuals everywhere who want to use science and technology to tackle the biggest problems facing the world. Harnessing their passion and enthusiasm and creating a global network through which they collaborate with each other and access the right mentorship and resources can be a game-changer. I was awestruck by the bold ideas and questions the scholars explored in my applied AI class. I cannot wait to see all the incredible things they accomplish.”
Launched by Equitech Futures in collaboration with the Science and Society Program at the Aspen Institute, the University of Chicago, and the University of Cambridge, the Equitech Scholars program provides new pathways for talented undergraduate and postgraduate students from all disciplines (including STEM, social sciences, humanities, and law) to learn essential data science, computational, problem-solving, and communication skills needed to thrive as an innovator in the 21st century.
The first segment of the program, a six-week virtual Global Summer Institute (GSI) concluded earlier in August. The courses in the GSI built foundational skills in statistics, computational thinking, artificial intelligence, alongside essential writing and public speaking skills. Scholars engaged with leading researchers and practitioners through cohort-based, discussion-driven classes and collaborative projects. And they attended a seminar series exploring ethical issues in technology.
"We are building a new kind of technology education platform that is problems-first: going beyond the silos of traditional university majors to build the multi-disciplinary skills needed to solve real-world problems."
— Abhilash Mishra
Building an Online Global Community of Innovators
The GSI was an audacious experiment in building a global community in a completely virtual setting. Scholars from California to the Philippines joined discussion-based classes with faculty for three hours every day for six weeks, despite vast differences in time zones.
“It’s an understatement to say that the pandemic has been difficult for students and educators,” said Thomas Murray who is the director of the speaking lab and leads community building at Equitech Futures. “I was skeptical about the effectiveness of learning on zoom. But spending time with this group of scholars from around the world demonstrated to me the possibilities of collaboration in an online environment. This requires thoughtful and intentional community building through live discussions and narrative storytelling. This too is an innovation.”
Anna Upreti, an Equitech Scholar from India who is a rising senior in Computer Science at Ashoka University, said she was amazed by the innovation in the curriculum in the GSI.
“As someone who has taken math courses all her life, I had a certain idea of how math and statistics are taught. But during the ‘Foundations of Data Science’ course I felt like a five-year-old discovering math for the first time,” she said about the course taught by faculty member Bhasi Nair. “The Applied Artificial Intelligence classes [taught by Abhilash Mishra] gave me a completely new lens of looking at the world and helped me really understand what goes on ‘under the hood’ of AI systems. The Writing Lab [taught by Krittika Bhattacharjee] and the Speaking Lab [taught by Thomas Murray] have had the greatest impact. They have allowed me to find my story, to align myself with my ‘why’ and develop the skills to communicate that to an audience."
A unique element of the GSI was the equal emphasis on technical courses alongside courses in writing and speaking that are often neglected in STEM classrooms but are essential to be effective innovators. “I was really struck by how willing the scholars were to take their own stories to places that were difficult or uncomfortable. It's easy to tell stories of triumph -- they're more readily rewarded, and easier to fake.” said Krittika Bhattacharjee, director of the Writing Lab. “Seeing this group of ambitious, curious innovators, wanting to tell authentic stories about themselves made me wonder: if we could rehearse honesty and humility through writing, how might the world we inhabit and build together change?”
The Transformative Power of Philanthropy
"If we want to build a more resilient and equitable post-pandemic future, it is crucial that we invest in the next generation of innovators from all backgrounds and from all corners of the world."
— Kevin Xu
Kevin Xu, a Los Angeles based philanthropist and entrepreneur who supported the Equitech Scholars program through the Kevin Xu Initiative, said creating new equitable platforms for training global innovators is an urgent necessity. "The pandemic has highlighted entrenched social inequality in every country. If we want to build a more resilient and equitable post-pandemic future, it is crucial that we invest in the next generation of innovators from all backgrounds and from all corners of the world. Silicon Valley or New York or London do not have a monopoly on innovators. In fact, the transformative ideas of the future are going to come from innovators from anywhere in the world. I’m thrilled to be partnering with Equitech Futures to help launch the next generation of transformative innovators who will tackle the world’s biggest challenges. Amazing things happen when we bet on passionate and talented people.”
“The Equitech Scholars community has given me a new sense of purpose,” said Daniella Kim, a scholar from the Philippines. “I am very excited to pursue new projects and collaborations with my fellow scholars and I’m very grateful to Equitech Futures for bringing this unique global community together.”