$1M NSF grant funds project to prepare autistic students for careers in AI

December 20, 2023

By Stephanie Koons 

Editor's note: This article originally appeared on Penn State News. 

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — The artificial intelligence (AI) revolution has created unprecedented career opportunities for which there are not enough qualified individuals to fill, according to a Penn State College of Education researcher. A multi-disciplinary team is leading a project that has been awarded $1 million from the National Science Foundation to create Al career pathways for science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) students on the autism spectrum. 

“Here’s a group of people that would do really well in the tech world,” said Richard Kubina, professor of education (special education) and co-principal investigator (co-PI) of the project. “What we’re doing is first teaching a course on AI, then getting students internships that could lead to employment. It’s not just teaching STEM skills; it’s teaching them how to interact in workplace settings.” 

The two-year project, “Beginnings: Preparing Autistic Students for the Al Workforce,” seeks to develop innovative teaching materials, provide internships and challenge stereotypes by creating pedagogical tools, and teach technical and collaboration skills through hands-on and online learning. The grant supports students with autism in the workplace and social environments and increases access by making course materials available to community colleges. Somayeh Asadi, associate professor of architectural engineering in the Penn State College of Engineering, is leading the project. 

Many people on the autism spectrum have the cognitive skills and interest in STEM to contribute significantly to the AI workforce, Kubina said. According to Stairway to STEM, which provides STEM resources to people with autism, people on the autism spectrum tend to possess strengths that are beneficial in technology sectors, such as attention to detail, visual discrimination and strong long-term memory. However, at least 85% of adults that are autistic in the U.S. are unemployed, according to MyDisabilityJobs, a platform that aims to bridge unemployed people with employment opportunities. 

The researchers plan to enroll a cohort of up to 17 community college students on the autism spectrum interested in AI careers. The students will participate in a program to teach them the skills needed to obtain an AI-focused professional summer internship experience and succeed at it. Afterwards, students will join one of the partner technology companies for an eight-week internship working on real AI and machine learning projects for the companies’ clients. 

The project includes partnerships with two IT firms that will offer remote internships to the community college students recruited by the researchers. Aspiritech specializes in testing, accessibility, quality assurance and data services. Ultranauts focuses on software and data quality engineering. Both hire predominantly autistic and neurodivergent staff — Aspiritech’s workforce is over 90% autistic and Ultranauts is over 75% neurodivergent, the majority autistic. 

In the second year of the program, Kubina said, students from the first cohort will be invited to speak about their experiences in the program at the beginning and end of the training period as well as at the end of the internship program to convey the lessons they learned to the new students. 

Despite concerns about job displacement, Kubina said, AI has the potential to create more jobs than it replaces. The World Economic Forum predicts that while AI may replace around 85 million jobs by 2025, it will also create approximately 97 million new roles. For example, AI-related skills, like machine learning, are witnessing a surge in demand. The development of AI itself requires many humans to train and refine AI algorithms, leading to the creation of roles that haven’t existed until now. 

“People always have fears of new technology displacing them,” Kubina said. “What the past cycle of innovations shows is jobs evolve and not necessarily eliminated. Our society has gone on to be more prosperous than the previous generations that did not have the new technology. “As the futurist Peter Diamandis says, while one may not lose their job to AI, that person will lose their job to someone that knows how to use AI.”  

Other co-PIs on the project are Andrew Begel, associate professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University; Taniya Mishra, founder and chief executive officer of SureStart, a company whose mission is to increase AI workforce diversity; and Matthew Boyer, research associate professor of engineering and science education at Clemson University. 


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