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Doing Good with the Power of AI and Social Entrepreneurship

“Instead of a shark tank, imagine you’re swimming with dolphins,” said an organizer of NYU’s Algorithms for Change competition in an attempt to calm our nerves as we headed into the final pitch-off. It wasn’t a real shark tank, of course; the organizer was referring to the popular TV show Shark Tank, where aspiring entrepreneurs make business presentations to a panel of "shark" investors.

A slick presentation and a rapid fire Q&A later, Amanda Newlin, my Smart Sparrow team partner, and I stood on the main stage, waiting breathlessly to hear the judges’ decision. When it was announced, we learned we had won the half million dollar prize!

But what made this win truly special was the opportunity to fulfill our project goal: using artificial intelligence (AI) for social good. More specifically, we are going to develop an AI-based solution to help low-income, minority, and first-generation college students get to and through college.

Underserved students lag far behind their peers when it comes to college and career readiness, and this is especially true for STEM learning and preparedness.

In 2017, ACT’s Condition of College & Career Readiness report revealed just 2% of students coming from low-income, minority and first-generation backgrounds met the ACT College Readiness Benchmark in STEM. Compare that with 32% of the students with none of those underserved population markers who met the ACT STEM benchmark.

That is an astounding gap.

Students are entering higher education without meeting the basic prerequisites needed to succeed. Smart Sparrow and ACTNext, ACT’s innovation arm, have partnered to address this challenge.

Funded by the Algorithms for Change award, we are building “Foundations of Science.” This is a suite of learning experiences that use AI and machine learning approaches to identify student knowledge and skill gaps, predict achievement, and deliver learner interventions to at-risk students within the first few weeks of their science courses.

Learner interventions may include actions such as introducing remedial lessons, resequencing content, and/or alerting an instructor. Moreover, our approach includes student engagement reports and instructor insights that will enable instructors to adapt their teaching to their students. Such innovations, when presented within a seamless course environment, will help increase student course grades, engagement and persistence — and the students who stand to benefit most from this are underserved students.

I believe there is a need for more tech in social good and more social good in tech.

While the practice of addressing social challenges with AI is relatively nascent, it’s exciting to envision how innovation could amplify the impact of social good programs. ACT and Smart Sparrow’s partnership to build AI-based solutions to improve learning outcomes for underserved students is a leading example.


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ACT is a mission-driven, nonprofit organization dedicated to helping people achieve education and workplace success. Headquartered in Iowa City, Iowa, ACT is trusted as a leader in college and career readiness, providing high-quality assessments grounded in nearly 60 years of research. ACT offers a uniquely integrated set of solutions designed to provide personalized insights that help individuals succeed from elementary school through career.

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