On the first day of “camp,” two dozen rising high school sophomores arrive at the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory’s Outreach Summer program (SAILORS) giddy and ready to get started. The rigorous, two-week program is designed to encourage young women from underrepresented populations to get more involved in the field of science.

high school students wearing medical scrubs examining a bone

High school students Ishla Zareef-Mustafa and Genaro Pamatz participate in an anatomy lab as part of the Stanford Medical Youth Science Program. (Image credit: Michael Abbott)

On the last day of the summer residential Stanford Medical Youth Science Program (SMYSP), 24 high school students, surrounded by family members, friends and mentors, present the research they have been working on during the five-week summer program.These programs, which fall under the umbrella of Stanford Pre-Collegiate Studies, are designed to provide teenagers from underrepresented populations with an opportunity to explore careers in science, but also to build new relationships, while taking what they’ve learned back to their home communities.

Girls and AI

The SAILORS curriculum includes lectures, hands-on research projects and mentoring activities that are intended to educate and excite young women about artificial intelligence.

Co-founders Olga Russakovsky, a Stanford postdoctoral researcher, and Fei-Fei Li, associate professor of computer science, started SAILORS in 2015 out of a shared concern about “the lack of diversity in computer science and artificial intelligence,” Russakovsky said.

high school student controlling a drone from a tablet computer

High school student Epiphany White controls a hexacopter drone as a participant in the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory’s Outreach Summer program. (Image credit: Micaela Go Photography)

In each of its first two years, the program received more than 200 applications for 24 spots. While 76 percent were from California, students from across the United States and from three other countries applied as well. SAILORS does not provide accommodations, but some out-of-town participants stay with family and friends. Thanks to support from various individual and corporate sponsors, SAILORS has been offered at no cost to students.

Each day begins with breakfast and an opportunity for the participants to engage with the day’s lecturer, followed by an academic tutorial. Afternoons are reserved for mentoring and personal-growth sessions led by 2015 SAILORS alumni. Students also work on research projects, take field trips and meet professional women in engineering and AI.

For Epiphany White, who attended SAILORS this summer, a highlight of the program was the opportunity to hear Maria Klawe, president of Harvey Mudd College, who gave a keynote speech. “Her message was so great,” White said. “We were able to talk to her and ask her questions. She really encouraged us to stay in the computer science field and dig deep into it.”

White also noted that she enjoyed the field trips to Dropbox and the Computer History Museum. “At Dropbox, we were able to hear from several women working there and discussed how they came to work in the computer science field.”

Students gathering at demonstration of an autonomous car

As part of their study of AI, high school students gather for a demonstration of an autonomous car. (Image credit: Micaela Go Photography)

At the end of the second week, the students presented their research projects. The four projects this year included how to utilize natural-language processing to aid disaster relief; using computer vision to make hospitals safer; writing machine-learning algorithms to detect various cancers in the human genome; and programming autonomous cars to revolutionize transportation. Staff, faculty and members of the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory were all invited to the presentations.

The SAILORS program isn’t only coding and research, said Iro Armeni, the 2016 program director, and a doctoral student in civil and environmental engineering at Stanford. “We don’t only want to teach them about AI but also build for them a strong community that they can use throughout their lives.”

Faculty and volunteers watched as this community grew. “Over breakfast, they would braid each other’s hair and at the same time talk about AI and their research projects,” said Russakovsky. “The program provides an environment where it’s cool to be a girl interested in AI.”

The girls who attend this program leave with bright ideas and a greater interest in AI. White said she wants to share AI with peers at her high school in Fort Wayne, Indiana.

The program “showed me how AI can really impact the world and the future,” she said. “I want to start a computer science club at my school.”

Giving students wings

From mid-June to mid-July, students in SMYSP’s five-week residential program attended classes at Stanford School of Medicine and on the main campus. Mondays and Fridays featured lectures by university and medical school faculty. Afternoons were devoted to anatomy and physiology lectures and labs taught by Stanford medical students. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, students participated in hospital internships with nurses, doctors, administrators and other Stanford Health Care professionals.

High school students sit in the Stanford Health Care Lifeflight helicopter

As part of the Stanford Medical Youth Science Program, high school students Amy Huang, Luis Dominguez, Maricar Almeda and Henry Guo visit the Stanford Health Care Lifeflight helicopter. (Image credit: Kat Phelps)

Students not only learned about the clinical aspects of patient care, but also explored the role of art and music therapy in patient healing. In addition they participated in community service projects and social and cultural activities, and interacted with professional mentors during the program. Students, rising juniors and seniors from Northern and Central California, receive full scholarships, made possible by contributions from various donor sources and grant funding.

SMYSP, which just concluded its 29th year, continues to evolve. A few years ago, notes Director Judith Ned, the program introduced a component on identity, which allowed participants to “explore and discuss constructs of power, privilege, racism, social advocacy and identity. The goal is to introduce students to these constructs so that they are able to apply what they learn to their own lives and communities.”

This year, the program introduced a storytelling component in which students had an opportunity to write and deliver three- to five-minute narratives about a significant experience in their lives.

“We hoped to impress upon our students that their stories of resilience, struggle and adversity could be leveraged to advocate for change in their home communities,” Ned said.

At the program’s graduation in late July, two of those students shared those stories.

Anthony Ramos from Watsonville, California, said: “Not only has SMYSP given me a better idea of what I wish to pursue in the future, but it has also offered a welcoming and safe environment for all the participants. We were free to express how we felt, share what we have experienced, and tell how we have fought against the odds and never gave up, despite the criticism that we would sometimes receive from others and the difficult experiences that we have encountered in the past. This is something that I had never been introduced to.”

Another participant, Daisy Solorzano from Salinas, California, said: “Coming here made me realize that there’s no such thing as an unreachable dream. Just like butterflies, we started by being caterpillars. But we grew, we learned, and we challenged ourselves to take it to the next step. Like a butterfly, this program gave us wings to fly to the thinnest layer of the sky and to prove to ourselves, our communities and our families that we will succeed.”