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SVVSD students developing IBM-powered technology bring real-life solutions to life

Once a week on Tuesdays, a group of ten students meet to discuss, design and test Watson-powered chatbots aimed at supporting the work of potential clients.
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Unsplash | Photo by Glenn Carstens Peters

On Apr. 20, St. Vrain Valley School District high school students delivered a virtual class to University of Colorado Boulder seniors at the Leeds School of Business on building and managing IBM Watson-powered chatbots.

The Watson Assistant is an IBM-developed artificial intelligence pop-up window designed to provide website visitors with fast, consistent, and accurate answers.

SVVSD high school students bringing this technology to life are doing so through their participation in a robotics project team at the Innovation Center, which allows students to learn and apply skills related to artificial intelligence and cybersecurity fields, according to Axel Reitzig, coordinator of innovation at SVVSD Innovation Center.

“Almost 2 years ago, I had a conversation with the superintendent and he expressed strong interest in having the district create what we called an artificial intelligence and cybersecurity hub because these two fields are very important fields,” he said. “When looking at the workplace market and the job market, there are a lot of unfilled positions that are critical for the success of the economy and society.”

As the second year of implementation of a three-year plan to support student acquisition of real-life experience wraps up, students from Silver Creek, Niwot, Skyline and Peak-to-Peak high schools work on group projects to put the technology to the task, he said. 

Once a week on Tuesdays, a group of ten students meet to discuss, design and test Watson-powered chatbots aimed at supporting the work of potential clients, Reitzig said.

Watson is a question-answering computer system. It was developed by IBM in 2011. 

The chatbot is one of the most popular artificial intelligence tools developed by IBM that has “tremendous” adoption rates among corporate businesses and other organizations, even during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Ivan Portilla, Watson AIOps offerings leader and solution architect at IBM.

“Major drugstores are using it to handle COVID vaccine registration, questions about COVID, and so on,” he said. “(Students) are using it in three different areas … for therapy sessions, for a help desk for the Innovation Center and there is one for a conservation project (happening) in collaboration Boulder County Parks and Open Space.”

A lot of schools do not have curriculum and classes dedicated to artificial intelligence, so this work at SVVSD is innovating the way students come into the field.

“Right now one of the major obstacles to implementing technology is a shortage of skills, (the workforce) is not growing fast enough to fill those positions,” he said. “What better way to start than at high school levels to get into these new collar jobs … This is a highly marketable skill … somebody with these skills can go into the market and get paid $100 to $200 an hour.”

For the last four years Portilla has brought his experience and expertise to students in the district to ensure new generations of computer scientists can be ready to enter the field, he said.

“One of my goals is to give back to the community and be a role model for minority kids, being a minority individual myself. IBM puts a lot of emphasis on diversity, and has a long history on diversity and inclusivity,” he said.

Quinn Burns, a freshman at Peak-to-Peak High School, said she has always been into computer science and is constantly seeking opportunities to get her hand on anything computer-science related. 

“When I heard about this opportunity, I didn’t know much about artificial intelligence, but they encouraged me to give something new a try … I’ve been learning how machines could actually learn from interaction and cannot wait to learn more,” she said.

Burns is currently working on a project for Kidspot, a pediatric therapy group, designing a chatbot, Hedgie, that handles frequently asked questions, and has the potential to save money by managing front-end communications on the website. 

Sienna Arellano works on the design of a Watson-powered assistant for SVVSD’s Innovation Center. She and her team intend to create a relatable, useful, safe and informative chatbot that can provide information about the district’s artificial intelligence and cybersecurity program, she said.

There currently exists no outlet for questions regarding this whole area of classes and courses for SVVSD so the chatbot will have the capability to answer common questions about summer opportunities, extracurricular activities, courses and more, she said. 

“I want to help the community…  I enjoy creating helpful tools for the community and would like to create solutions that help,” she said. 

The student-developed chatbots are now in the testing stages and expected to be completed within the next couple of weeks, Reitzig said. 

“We want to ensure students graduate with a competitive advantage, they are equipped with the skills and knowledge to be optimally successful in our economy and society,” he said.