Students take on global challenges during virtual AI hackathon

UNESCO YouthMobile and Microsoft have partnered to host the Imagine Cup Junior Virtual AI Hackathon, a practical journey into digital literacy on the theme “AI for Earth”.

From 18 to 20 June 2021, high-school students from Europe, the Middle East and Africa engaged in an intensive online experience to understand what AI is, learn how to adapt to a constantly changing intelligence landscape, and build the skills they need to take ethical control of the development and use of AI.

Following the highly successful All-Girls hackathon earlier this year, the event aimed at emphasizing the impact that AI can have on the future of our planet: the practical exercises and real-life examples used during the event all focused on the use of AI to better understand and address sustainability, particularly climate change and the loss of biodiversity. These issues are all relevant to the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which recognize the importance of tackling climate change and working to preserve our oceans and forests.

The hackathon culminated in a design challenge, where participants from Egypt, Russian Federation, Spain, Romania, Ireland, Nigeria, Morocco and Oman worked in teams to envision an AI solution to a real-world problem that would benefit the Earth. A panel of judges ultimately awarded 4 ideas:

  • Team Autonomus from Egypt proposed a project that would enable governments and wildlife organizations to track elephant populations using a combination of acoustic sensors, bioacoustics recorders, camera traps and aerial imagery.
  • Team Regression from Egypt exposed a solution to protect elders who live alone during emergency situations, in which they are unable to call for help, through an AI supervised learning and classification to correctly identify an emergency.
  • Team Gauss from Romania worked on preservation of tiger subspecies by tracking tigers through social media and using classification for discerning pictures.
  • Team Binary from Russian Federation proposed to mitigate the effects of the ongoing pandemic by developing an AI that can predict the degree of congestion in various areas, letting users know which high-risk places they need to avoid.

Supported by their teachers and by mentors volunteers, students started their journey by learning how to think like a programmer, break down a problem into a precise sequence of instructions, and create coding solutions that include sequences, events, loops and conditionals.

On the second day, students were driven through the history of AI – from the first conceptualization of an automaton in the Greek myth of Talos to the super AIs of today. They learned about the pioneers who first defined what constitutes an AI and were shown the difference between narrow, general and super AIs. There were discussions on ethics and the responsible use of AI before moving on to more technical insights and machine learning techniques.

Finally, to prepare for the design challenge, they underwent a series of exercises exploring various applications of AI in the context of sustainability. Using their knowledge of regression, classification and clustering, students were able to work in various tools and languages to solve a series of challenges, including predicting water consumption, deciding which is the best place to plant trees, and saving endangered species like penguins or the elusive snow leopard.

UNESCO leverages young people’s digital creativity to shape solutions for the world. In today’s world, becoming digitally literate requires to further explore, understand, push limits and learn complex skills, such as the basics of AI. Equipped with digital skills, young people could develop digital solutions to address local challenges, supporting themselves and their communities.

In consideration of recent developments in the social and digital domains, including artificial intelligence, privacy issues, the increasing importance of social competencies such as digital citizenship and education for sustainable development, UNESCO recently launched its updated curriculum on media and information literacy: “Think critically, Click Wisely: Media and Information Literate Citizens”.

The event was a contribution to the Global Education Coalition, launched by UNESCO in 2020, which brings together more than 175 members from the UN family, civil society, academia and the private sector to ensure that #LearningNeverStops.

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