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July 10, 2018

A Student’s Exploration of Implicit Bias Through AI

Mia Alexander, AltSchool Student

Mia Alexander recently graduated from eighth grade at AltSchool Yerba Buena. Passionate about women’s rights, psychology, and programming, she wants to use technology and AI to make a change in the world. One day, she hopes to have a profession in psychology, with a subset of AI and programming. Mia shares details about her Capstone Project, reflecting on how the experience is helping her approach those goals.

My name is Mia Alexander and I am an AltSchool graduate.

I spent my final weeks at AltSchool working on a capstone project. Now, what is a capstone project? A student is paired with an advisor and they are given full agency to choose a project that interests them. With the help of their advisor, they connect with experts who can help them and focus on making a change in their community. 

Understanding Implicit Bias

Many people today are so stuck on their own opinions that they can’t—or won’t—see things from another point of view. Sometimes, people are unaware of the opinions they have. These are called implicit biases. But implicit biases are tricky to study because they are so nuanced. Social experiments are costly and time-consuming to set up, and forms don’t always produce the most accurate results because people lie—purposefully or not. So how can we accurately and effectively study implicit biases to inform the public about them?

Brainstorming ideas for my project.

That’s where AI plays in. Think about what you type into Google or say to Siri. People everywhere ask embarrassing or deeply personal questions to search engines and computer programs because they are not afraid of judgement from them. The same concept can be applied to scientific studies. I chose this project because I am interested in both AI and psychology, but also as a person, I try to be as unbiased as possible and always see both sides of a story. I wanted to share this mindset with other people and raise awareness of unconscious biases.

Discover: 5 Ways to Drive Student Agency

Learning from Experts

I have changed my focus to social experiments (still including the use of a bot) to make my project more doable and feasible.

I started by talking to [my advisor] David, spitballing ideas and questions I had from my observations of the world around me. Most of these observations came from the community walks we did as a class as part of the engage phase of the AltSchool Learning Cycle. After establishing that I was interested in AI, David connected me to two experts within AltSchool, Paul Pisani, a business analyst, and Austin Ford, a data scientist. I interviewed them both to learn more about my topic.

With Austin, I talked about AI and its uses and potential outcomes. With Paul, we explored a simple webcrawler and how it could be used to explore biases. After talking to these experts and completing the engage and investigate phases, I was ready to start making something.

Learn more about Socially Embedded Learning from VP of Pedagogy Colleen Broderick.

Putting a Plan into Action

My prototype.

I decided to make a prototype website on a stripped-down coding platform called Scratch. The prototype would allow me to figure out how it it could be further developed. This step was complex because of my limited knowledge and the capacity of the site. It was pretty frustrating to have to change my original vision multiple times to have it work on Scratch, but it was a good reminder of how often things change before reaching the end result. I also worked with my math teacher (and coder extraordinaire) Mr. Kai King to work out how it would function. As of now, I’m still tweaking and perfecting the prototype for my launch phase.

Across my time at AltSchool, one of the most important lessons I have learned is about developing a growth mindset: understanding that failure is not only OK, but necessary for growth. Especially being in a tech-forward school, things are constantly changing and evolving. I built on and reinforced this skill during this project by making many pivots and changes. Every time I hit a wall, I would change my project to get around that obstacle.

Having a growth mindset is a big part of programming as well. Being able to find the source of the problem and change efficiently is an essential skill for a programmer. I know that moving forward this will be an incredibly useful skill to have under my belt, and that AltSchool has prepared me well for any challenge I might face in life.

Read more from our students: A Student’s Story: Setting Goals and Learning Through Teaching
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