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Mentoring Platform Leverages AI to Boost Participation in STEM

CareerFair.ai will enable STEM experts to build their own virtual mentor online
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An interdisciplinary project between researchers at California State University, Fullerton (CSUF) and the University of Southern California (USC) is studying ways to mitigate major challenges to building and retaining a robust STEM workforce. The project, “CareerFair.ai: Increasing Connections to Fast-Growing STEM Careers,” is funded by a three-year grant from the Department of Defense’s National Defense Education Program (NDEP) for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) Education, Outreach, and Workforce Initiative Programs, totaling $2.6 million.

Projections indicate that between 400,000 and two million Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) positions in the United States may be unfilled by 2025. Higher education institutions are challenged to support promoting entry, retention, and persistence of undergraduate students, as less than half of college entrants intending to major in a STEM field complete a STEM degree. Underserved students are particularly at risk for attrition from STEM disciplines. Although mentoring can improve retention and diversity of students in STEM fields, it is difficult to make mentors widely available.

Yuko Okado, assistant professor of Psychology at CSUF, is a principal investigator on the CareerFair.ai project with Benjamin Nye, director of learning sciences at the USC Institute for Creative Technologies (ICT), and William Swartout, chief technology officer at USC ICT.

“We are recruiting a diverse set of mentors for this project, so students can find and interview mentors that match what they are looking for — this could be a match in terms of the type of occupation, educational background, cultural background, or personality, among other factors,” Okado says. “Our goal is to increase access to mentors and open more doors for all students, including those in non-STEM disciplines, to consider STEM-related career opportunities.”

The team aims to develop a sustainable virtual career fair where students can engage in free, simulated conversations 24 hours a day with a diverse array of professionals to learn about different pathways to STEM careers. USC ICT will develop CareerFair.ai, a web-based platform, where students interact for free with virtual STEM professionals in Department of Defense priority areas and STEM professionals can build their own intelligent mentors. These “virtual mentors” use machine-learning to identify the most appropriate response to an input question among video-recorded answers, which enables a simulated conversation with mentors. The set of mentors will grow through agent-authoring technology that allows real-life STEM professionals to widely disseminate their career insights and experiences.

Okado will research the benefits and impact of these mentors, specifically at public institutions in California with a high density of first-generation, low-income, and underrepresented college students. She also will help develop collaborative partnerships among key stakeholders, such as students, university organizations, and STEM professionals and recruiters in highest-demand sectors.

CSUF, which will conduct the initial testing of the technology prior to dissemination to other institutions, is a Hispanic-serving institution that is ranked No. 3 in the nation by Diverse Issues in Higher Education for awarding bachelor’s degrees to underrepresented students.

About Cal State Fullerton: The largest university in the CSU and the only campus in Orange County, Cal State Fullerton offers 110 degree programs, and Division 1 athletics. Recognized as a national model for supporting student success, CSUF excels with innovative, high-impact educational practices, including faculty-student collaborative research, study abroad and competitive internships. Our vibrant and diverse campus is a primary driver of workforce and economic development in the region. CSUF is a top public university known for its success in supporting first-generation and underrepresented students, and preparing all students to become leaders in the global marketplace. Our It Takes a Titan campaign, a five-year $200 million comprehensive fundraising initiative, prioritizes investments in academic innovation, student empowerment, campus transformation and community enrichment. Visit fullerton.edu.

About the USC Institute for Creative Technologies: The University of Southern California Institute for Creative Technologies is a University Affiliated Research Center (UARC) developing award-winning advanced immersive experiences that leverage groundbreaking research technologies and the art of entertainment to simulate human capabilities. Influencing the trajectory of technological exploration and advancement, USC ICT’s mission is to use basic and applied research that benefits learning, education, health, human performance, and knowledge. This work is led by the USC ICT Learning Sciences group.

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