Penn State faculty awarded funding to advance public good

Two teams will work to educate students and community members on the application of public interest technology to address real-world problems


By Samantha Chavanic

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — As public interest technology advances, more researchers across disciplines are working to apply technology to serve the public good, such as advancing equity and social justice through technology and fostering the integration of scientific insight into policymaking.

To further develop PIT efforts, New America announced the awarding of 31 grants totaling $3.61 million to Public Interest Technology University Network members from 24 colleges and universities at its 2021 PIT-UN Convening on Nov. 2, including support for two Penn State research teams. All the funding will support PIT education and professional development opportunities.

New America is an organization focused on combining research and analysis expertise in the areas of coding, data science and human-centered design to create innovative solutions to challenges caused by rapid technological and social change.

“AI for Good, Experiential Learning & Innovation for PIT” project

Led by principal investigator Sandra Allain, director of the Penn State Law, Policy, and Engineering initiative and professor of practice, the “AI (Artificial Intelligence) for Good, Experiential Learning & Innovation PIT” project will establish two educational opportunities to advance PIT: a non-credit, online microcredential course available to citizen innovators and a new track within an existing Penn State Nittany AI Alliance program aimed at fostering experiential learning opportunities for students.

“Non-profits and the communities they serve often don’t have the knowledge, resources or technical expertise to benefit from technologies such as artificial intelligence,” Allain said. “Through a collaboration between LPE, SEDTAPP [School of Engineering Design, Technology, and Professional Programs] and Penn State Outreach’s Nittany AI Alliance, we have the opportunity to expose students to real-world problems and the societal effects of emerging technologies. We can also develop online microcredentials to provide skills that will advance innovation and the use of AI for public interest technology.”

LPE and SEDTAPP will partner with the College of Engineering’s Office of Digital Learning to lead LEAP for PIT, a digital professional training opportunity focused on the four themes of leadership, entrepreneurship, artificial intelligence and policy. Community members will complete each self-paced theme module to receive a LEAP for PIT microcredential badge.

The researchers will also develop a public interest internship track within Nittany AI Alliance’s existing Advance program. This new track will partner LPE, Nittany AI Alliance, the Forbes Funds, the city of Philadelphia and the Pennsylvania Association of Nonprofit Organizations with nonprofit and non-government organizations to offer artificial intelligence-oriented internships to students. It will allow undergraduate students to design solutions to navigate technological access barriers in marginalized communities across Pennsylvania through internships with community organizations and stakeholders. Students will have the opportunity to apply artificial intelligence and machine learning technologies to engage with and improve nonprofit organizations and the communities they serve.

“It is important to engage students in projects that expose them to opportunities that serve and advance the public good,” said Daren Coudriet, project co-PI, executive director of innovation in Penn State Outreach and director of the Nittany AI Alliance. “We are grateful to the Public Interest Technology University Network for the opportunity to explore how artificial intelligence might help address the challenges nonprofits face in serving their communities.”

“Bridging the Digital Divide in Indian Country” project

Ahead of the more than $2 billion in funding for broadband support from the $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure deal, Native American communities have identified a need for additional support and training to ensure a successful implementation. Through partnerships with Native American-lead organizations, the Penn State Donald P. Bellisario College of Communications-affiliated X-Lab will use PIT-UN funding to support skills training and implementation, engineering support and grant-writing to adequately fund and meet the needs of local communities through its Bridging the Digital Divide in Indian Country project.

“For over a dozen years, my team’s research has documented the systematic under-provisioning of broadband services across Indian Country; today, we have an unprecedented opportunity to bolster countless Native-lead efforts to close these digital divides,” said Sascha Meinrath, principal investigator, X-Lab director and Palmer Chair in Telecommunications. “PIT-UN support will accelerate skills-sharing, engineering and implementation capacity and inter-Tribal coordination to bolster Native-lead efforts that are being developed all across the country.”

Led by Meinrath, the project partners X-Lab with Native American collaborators to create educational and training materials focused on best practices and empowered decision-making and helping provide experiential, practice work experience through broadband implementation. Meirnrath said that these efforts aim to strengthen relationships within allied Native American communities and aid in federal policy interventions to further address the communities’ needs, including the development of boot-camp workshops, broadband-technology training materials and assistance in securing additional governmental funding in support of Native American-led broadband projects.

“Since the ‘dial-up modem era,’ a core facet of the digital divide has grown dramatically: the successes of broadband provisioning have created an ever-widening resource-gulf between those with connectivity and those without,” Meinrath said. “This growing digital divide is particularly acute among Tribal communities — too many of which are among the least-connected areas of the country — and requires immediate, bold, capital-intensive interventions to rectify. X-Lab’s work aims to assist Native American initiatives in their efforts to organize, provision, manage and oversee Tribal broadband service provisioning across their sovereign lands.”

For a complete list of grant awardees, visit the New America website.


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