Master’s Degree in AI Now Within Reach of Low-Income Students

by Gisele Galoustian | Saturday, Jun 20, 2020
FAU will recruit and train talented and diverse students who are economically disadvantaged and provide them with a unique opportunity to pursue graduate education in a burgeoning field.

Researchers from Florida Atlantic University’s College of Engineering and Computer Science have received a four-year, $1 million grant from the National Science Foundation for a project to make the master’s degree in artificial intelligence (AI) accessible to high-achieving, low-income students. The accelerated five-year bachelor’s degree in science and master’s degree in AI program is designed to adapt curricular and co-curricular support to enable students to complete their degrees in AI, autonomous systems or machine learning, which are critically important areas needed to advance America’s global competitiveness and national security.

“Artificial intelligence is transforming every walk of life from business to healthcare and enabling us to rethink how we analyze data, integrate massive amounts of information and make informed decisions that impact society, the economy and governance,” said Stella Batalama, Ph.D., dean of FAU’s College of Engineering and Computer Science and a co-principal investigator of the grant. “This important grant from the National Science Foundation will allow us to recruit and train talented and diverse students who are economically disadvantaged and provide them with a unique opportunity to pursue graduate education in an exciting and burgeoning field.”

By preparing increased numbers of high-achieving, low-income students to become engineers in these fields, this project addresses the need for growing a more diverse STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) research population. The model also provides a framework for enhancing post-secondary infrastructure in terms of how to coordinate support services for a great impact on diverse students. Once completed, materials developed from the project are expected to have a broad impact on how universities educate low-income students in both curricular and, equally important, co-curricular activities.

The project team is spearheaded by Dimitris A. Pados, Ph.D., principal investigator, a professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering & Computer Science, a fellow of FAU’s Institute for Sensing and Embedded Network Systems (I-SENSE), the Charles E. Schmidt Eminent Scholar in Engineering and director of the Center for Connected Autonomy and Artificial Intelligence, who is nationally renowned in the areas of autonomous systems, machine learning and AI applications to communication networks.

“Students in our new program will be organized in cohorts to promote a goal-oriented and supportive environment that results in persistence to complete a bachelor’s degree in science and pursue a graduate degree in artificial intelligence,” said Pados. “This multi-year experience will broaden their awareness of the many avenues available for support and provide a rich opportunity to work with and learn from a number of mentors comprised of graduate students and faculty throughout our college with expertise in various fields.”

The project plan involves five major components: student identification and recruitment; curricular support; co-curricular support; graduate school or career readiness, and research and evaluation. The project team together with FAU’s Office of Student Financial Aid and FAU’s Office of Institutional Effectiveness and Analysis will identify college juniors with strong academic records (GPA of 3.4 or higher) in all engineering fields. Scholarships will be awarded to students following a sliding scale, with juniors receiving $4,000 for the academic year, seniors receiving $6,000 for the academic year, and master’s students receiving $10,000 for the academic year.

“Research has shown that despite high academic success in the first two years of college, many high-achieving, low-income students drop out altogether or opt for a reduced course load and enter the workforce for various reasons,” said Javad Hashemi, Ph.D., co-principal investigator, associate dean for research in FAU’s College of Engineering and Computer Science, and a professor in the Department of Ocean and Mechanical Engineering. “Our inspiration to apply for this grant was spurred by the Kelly Strul Emerging Scholars Program created by FAU President John Kelly, first lady Carolyn Kelly and philanthropists Aubrey and Sally Strul, which provides scholarships for students who are the first-generation in their families to attend college. Our new, innovative program will offer an alternative pathway that is accessible to exceptional students and provides them with the ability to earn a master’s degree in a high-impact, highly-desirable and high-paying field.”

As part of the program, students will interact with the college’s industrial board an as entrée into potential internships and/or full-time positions upon graduation and will participate in a special seminar series that will host industry speakers to enhance students’ awareness of career possibilities. Interactions with graduate students through research projects also will enhance their awareness and understanding of graduate education and support them to become self-sufficient members of the engineering community.

The project team includes Nancy R. Romance, Ph.D., co-principal investigator, a professor of science education and director of FAU’s STEM Collaborative, who has an extensive record of externally-funded research grants in STEM disciplines across both public schools and postsecondary institutions; and Xingquan (Hill) Zhu, Ph.D., a professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering & Computer Science, director of the college’s Bidtellect Laboratory, and an expert on deep learning and big data analytics. Zhu recently established the first NSF-funded Major Research Instrumentation (MRI) Artificial Intelligence and Deep Learning (AIDL) Training and Research Laboratory in Florida at FAU.

Last year, FAU’s College of Engineering and Computer Science launched the state’s first Master of Science with Major in AI (MSAI), administered by the Department of Electrical Engineering & Computer Science. This degree is preparing students for careers in various education, government and industry positions that require AI skills.