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Student-run tech podcast aims to make computer science more diverse, accessible

(Left to right: Harold Lee/Daily Bruin, courtesy of Association for Computing Machinery Design at UCLA)

By Emma Hardymon

Jan. 27, 2021 4:56 p.m.

The artificial intelligence division of the Association for Computing Machinery at UCLA is staying connected to high schoolers by making sure they know that “You Belong in AI!”

Launched in May by ACM AI’s Outreach Director Arjun Subramonian, the “You Belong in AI!” podcast was designed with the Title I high schools that Teach LA – a program that sends UCLA students in ACM around Los Angeles County to teach free computer science classes – traditionally serves in mind. Subramonian, a fourth-year computer science student, said each episode features a guest with experience working in fields related to AI as they discuss their work, education and childhood, hoping to foster increased diversity and inclusivity in the discipline.

Podcast guests are encouraged to put themselves in the shoes of their younger audience by reminiscing about their early experiences that eventually compelled them to join the AI industry, Subramonian said.

“We want to be sure that we retain that interest in students by continually pushing against these systematic barriers to access science and math that all of these students are facing from a really young age,” Subramonian said. “We want to keep on keeping them interested. If we can keep them interested – when they go into high school and when they’re applying to college – we’ve succeeded with our goal.”

Additionally, Subramonian said they hope highlighting the formative years of industry professionals will make AI and computer science as a whole feel more accessible to everyone interested in joining the field. AI technology’s inclusivity is entirely dependent on those who help create it – its success hinges on the diverse perspectives of AI engineers with differing identities, backgrounds and experiences, they said.

[Related: Alum’s ‘Finding Founders’ podcast seeks to highlight, humanize business leaders]

As Subramonian will be graduating at the end of this quarter, they said the team passed the podcast’s leadership to Ava Asmani, a first-year electrical engineering student and ACM AI intern, and Matthew Ruíz, a second-year computer science student and ACM AI outreach officer. Moving forward, Ruíz said he and Asmani plan to maintain Subramonian’s established themes of diversity and inclusion while adding increased levels of relatability by doubling down on Subramonian’s emphasis on the guests’ childhoods.

“Despite being in ACM AI, I don’t know a crazy amount – I mean, I know some – but I don’t know a crazy amount about artificial intelligence computation-wise,” Asmani said. “But the reason they picked me for the position that I’m in is because I’m more interested in the ethics of AI and the social impact of AI.”

As he was considering the new position, Ruíz said he ultimately joined the “You Belong in AI!” team out of an interest in diversifying the AI field. As a minority student in the field himself, he said the podcast was a great opportunity to meet people like him.

“Right now, I’m interested in going into the artificial intelligence community after college ends,” Ruíz said. “So seeing how these people were able to do it – that’s very inspiring to me.”

[Related: ‘MigrAsians’ podcast explores influence of Asian identities on art and politics]

Recent guests on the podcast include a graduate student in medical engineering and medical physics at the Harvard-MIT Health Sciences and Technology program and an AI researcher studying machine learning and evolutionary computation. Asmani said these podcast guests all shared intimate details of their lives that contribute to how they have reached their current success. For example, the podcast’s latest guest – Paco Guzmán, a research scientist for Facebook – admitted he struggled for years to find his true calling before discovering a home in AI.

Asmani said ACM and ACM AI also want to introduce UCLA students not traditionally involved with computer science to the world of AI through numerous online workshops and forums. Asmani is working on an online forum for UCLA students about how AI can be used to solve issues surrounding climate change. Additionally, she believes “You Belong in AI!” is crucial to ACM’s goal to get more students interested in computer science.

“The reason (the podcast) is called ‘You Belong in AI!’ is because we believe that anyone belongs in AI,” Asmani said. “There’s no reason that you feel like you can’t be in it. You belong in it, and you can do whatever you want.”

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Emma Hardymon
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