Diversity & Inclusion
AI / DEI / Education / STEM / Youth

This educator wants to be ‘Bill Nye for diverse young people’ and encourage students to pursue STEM opportunities

Justin Shaifer spoke at North Philadelphia's Gesu School about why the field is so essential for both students and teachers, with a special focus on AI.

Justin Shaifer presenting to Gesu School students. (Courtesy Gesu School)

This story is a part of Technical.ly’s Pathways to Tech Careers Month. See the full 2024 editorial calendar.

In a middle school gymnasium filled with sixth, seventh and eighth graders, about half the students raised their hands when asked if they knew what artificial intelligence was.

The students at North Philadelphia’s Gesu School were gathered for a presentation from Justin Shaifer, aka Mr. Fascinate, about “Why STEM is Dope.”

The LA-based Shaifer’s goal is to be like Bill Nye the Science Guy and help bring diverse young people into STEM fields. He’s the founder of Fascinate Media and a Forbes’ 30 Under 30 honoree in education.

STEM opens up more opportunities to make money and to develop a unique way of problem solving, Shaifer told the students.

“STEM and hard work took me from zero to hero,” he said.

The event came during a time when teachers are increasingly being asked to incorporate AI into their lessons, both to fill gaps in education equity and to prepare students for future careers.

Creating an example

There are myriad ways a person can enter the STEM field. When he presents to students, Shaifer aims to convey that failure can be overcome, and low grades don’t necessarily mean you won’t be successful later. That shone during his time with Gesu students and educators who told Technical.ly they appreciated his candor.

Jo-Anne Young, a seventh and eighth grade science teacher at Gesu, said she was glad students could hear that Shaifer struggled when he was in school, but he still worked hard and became successful.

“It was good to hear someone else, another Black person, talk about their experiences,” Ariel, an eighth grader at Gesu, told Technical.ly. “I think it was a good experience for everyone because as females in the STEM industry, it’s very looked down upon, like, you know when you hear about engineering people [people] automatically think, ‘Oh, he’s an engineer,’ but females can do that, too.”

Women make up just 22% of engineering majors.

Gesu School is focused on providing hands-on STEM experiences for its students, President and CEO Bryan Carter said, including through a STEM club. Tayla, an eighth grader at Gesu, is a member and said the club gives her the opportunity to learn more about science and work on additional projects such as building battery-powered vehicles.

A group of people posing for a picture in front of a banner.

(L to R) Gesu School students, Justin Shaifer and Bryan Carter. (Courtesy Gesu School)

AI in education

While the students are thinking about STEM in their futures, the educators at Gesu are working to incorporate technology lessons into their teaching.

Shaifer also presented last week to local educators at Gesu School’s annual Symposium on Education with a talk titled “A.I. Empowerment: Ushering Students and Teachers into the Age of Artificial Intelligence.”

Shaifer has been using AI tools in his video production company since 2020. When ChatGPT came out in 2022, he spoke to a lot of educators who didn’t think it was necessary to learn about.

“I think what happened was kids started finding out about it as they do,” Shaifer told Technical.ly. “This tool got thrusted on [teachers]. They still have their same curriculum and rubrics and all these other things. And kids now can pretty much do all that stuff with the stroke of a key and [teachers] haven’t been able to adapt.”

Gesu School’s leadership chose AI as the topic for its annual symposium because of its societal relevance, Carter said. The school wants to stay up to date with new technology and acknowledges that students are already using AI.

“This will introduce our teachers more,“ Carter said. “We’ll introduce them more to what AI means, how it can be utilized in school, and how it can be utilized to the advantage and benefit of the children.”

A handful of programs dedicated to training educators in AI best practices exist across the US, such as at Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Computer Science, which hosts an annual summer workshop for Pittsburgh teachers.

Young, the middle school science teacher, hasn’t used AI in her classroom yet, but said she is looking forward to learning how to incorporate more technology — especially because students often know more than their teachers about this type of technology. Yet as education pros noted during Computer Science Education Week 2022: Ideally, teaching the teachers should come first.

The Symposium reviewed ways that educators can think about technology and tools they can use to keep up with constantly changing technology including artificial intelligence, Shaifer said. This includes finding practical ways to use tools such as ChatGPT and Midjourney in the classroom.

Preparing students for the future

Using AI in school won’t just impact teachers, it will also expose students to the technology early on and help prepare them for their future careers.

As a business owner, Shaifer aims to hire young people who know how to use AI tools and can therefore be more productive than applicants who don’t have those skills.

“I think that one of the most important things about artificial intelligence is to not run away from it,” he said. “If as educational institutions, you all are, you know, vilifying AI, and not teaching your kids about it, you’re putting them at [a disadvantage in the] workforce. And so it’s all about, of course, learning ethical ways to teach them about these skills and tools.”

Early exposure to AI and technology in a fun way helps hold students’ interest in the tools, Shaifer said. This way, when the subject material becomes more complex, they’ve already had a fun educational experience to lean on.

Shaifer compared incorporating AI into education to incorporating calculators into math. Students should still understand the foundation of essay writing, solving math problems and doing science experiments, for example. But then they can build on that knowledge by learning  about an easier way to do those tasks using AI. He noted, however, that there are still ethical questions around AI usage, making fact checking important.

Ultimately, he said, it’s important for educators to continue updating their curriculum to reflect the most recent technology and the most up-to-date ethical standards for using it.

That way, the gymnasium at Gesu School could someday be filled with AI experts.

Sarah Huffman is a 2022-2023 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of The Groundtruth Project that pairs young journalists with local newsrooms. This position is supported by the Lenfest Institute for Journalism.
Series: Pathways to Tech Careers Month 2024
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