When it comes to hot career fields, it doesn’t get much hotter than artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (AIM), an IT-engineering hybrid application involving data analysis, visualization and algorithms performing useful business functions that has evolved into its own highly compensated career path with booming demand in a wide variety of fields.
A relatively new degree program at an Arizona community college supported by IT chip-making giant Intel is testing whether an associate degree program can deliver an education that will augment the ability of students to successfully vie for entry-level AIM jobs at employers.
In 2020, Chandler-Gilbert Community College (CGCC), a part of the Maricopa County Community College District (MCCCD) that serves greater Phoenix, launched an associate of applied science AIM degree and an AIM certificate. These offerings were subsequently expanded to a second MCCCD community college, Estrella Mountain Community College (EMCC).
The first two AIM certificate program students and a degree program student recently graduated, with more additional graduates in both programs expected this fall. There are 47 students enrolled in the associate degree program at CGCC and Estrella Mountain and six in the certificate program at both community colleges, while more than 200 students have taken at least one AIM course, says Habib Matar, a former Intel employee who designed the CGCC AIM curriculum and is teaching many of the classes. Enrollment may grow to more than 100 this fall, says Gabriela Rosu, dean of instruction at CGCC.
The program’s potential has already paid off for some CGCC AIM participants. Arnav Bawa, who will graduate from the degree program in May 2023, began a paid internship at Intel in early August. In 2021, he was one of three winners of Intel’s AI Global Impact Festival, which featured 230 innovators from 20 countries who submitted proposals on how AI could enrich people’s lives. Bawa and his team’s AI Global Impact Festival project focused on developing an AI algorithm that can detect epileptic seizures before they happen.
“I am working in a lab that is focused on ‘smart space interactions,’ which is basically how sensors in an environment can read human actions and use that data to create a task-assistance system — think of JARVIS from the movie Iron Man [a sophisticated AI assistant helping lead character superhero Tony Stark],” Bawa says. “Right now, my job is to examine the data to determine how to develop a dataset for machine learning. Once this is complete, I will be learning about different baseline AI models being developed by experts in the team.”
While Bawa, who is also concurrently pursuing both bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Arizona State University, is not a full-time employee at Intel yet, “the general pathway to joining Intel is that we love to convert interns into full-time employees,” says Carlos Contreras, senior director of AI and digital readiness at Intel.
AI’s promise and challenges
The highest tiers of the AIM profession are occupied by research scientists who often boast PhDs in the field. But, as with much computer software programming, where newer generations of simpler computer languages have reduced the entry barrier to those with less coding expertise, more than a decade of AI research has now produced simplified tools. This is enabling workers with less education, who often occupy a position called AI technician, to use AI to craft solutions for businesses.
Demand for AI employees generally and in south-central Arizona, which includes Phoenix and Tempe, is strong. A 2021 survey of higher education educators and IT decision-makers found that 69% of all respondents sensed increasing demand from employers for graduates with AI technical skills. Despite the demand for AI instruction at community colleges, only 45% of respondents reported that their school offers any AI technical course, certification or degree program. The survey found lack of instructors and lack of IT expertise as obstacles in offering such instruction.
The aim of AIM
CGCC’s AIM degree and certificate programs are focused on filling that gap.
Program content in the degree includes an introduction to AI and machine learning, natural language processing, computer vision, and AI for business solutions and other applications. The curriculum also includes coursework in computer programming, math, engineering and statistics. The program enables students to develop traditional skills such as data collection, AI model training, coding and exploring the societal impact of AI technology.
The degree features a capstone project that invites businesses in the community to bring a problem that they would like solved with AI or that students think of on their own. Class participants develop solutions.
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“One capstone project that a student developed that I thought was really interesting was for AI pill classification,” Matar says. “So let’s say you’re an elderly person, you drop your pill container with individual compartments for your pills for Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and the pills come out. This AI application would examine the pills based upon their colors, shapes and wording on pills and tell you which pill is which based upon photos of the pills my student had taken. And so he created a way to take a photo, classify based on those three conditions, and then print out kind of an FDA report on each pill’s characteristics.”
The degree program is 61 to 76 units, can be completed in two years, and at the $85 per credit hour cost for Maricopa County residents, would cost between $5,185 and $6,460.
The certificate program, which excludes general education and breadth courses and instead just features AI-specific classes, is mainly for current engineering-computer science practitioners, engineers and other professionals, enabling them to gain a specialty in an AI area that may be outside of their day-to-day duties, Matar says. The certificate program is 21 to 36 units, can be completed in one year and features a $1,785 to $3,060 price tag for Maricopa County residents.
Support from Intel
Intel has had an outsized role in fostering AIM degrees at CGCC and elsewhere.
In 2020, Intel launched its AI for Future Workforce Program, which aims to support hands-on training and expanded access to technology skills needed for current and future jobs through partnerships with governments and community colleges. Through the program, Intel provides more than 500 hours of AI content to community colleges, including pre-packed courses. In addition, Intel offers professional training for faculty and implementation guidance to the community colleges, which use this content to develop AI certificates, augment existing courses, or launch full AI associate degree programs for students.
Now, more than 70 schools in 32 states have joined the AI for Workforce program as of July 2022, according to Intel.
In March, MCCCD and Intel Corporation, opened a new AI incubator lab at the CGCC campus to expand access to classes and resources for AI students. Along with an AI curriculum, technical advice and faculty training, Intel provided CGCC a technology grant that the college used to buy $60,000 worth of equipment for the lab.
As noted, the prize for many degree graduates is high-paying AI tech jobs in a multitude of fields. The CGCC website notes a variety of careers for which the program could help students prepare and also the median salaries for those positions. Matar says one employment challenge AIM degree graduates may face is that the standard requirement for entry in the AI field is a bachelor’s degree at most organizations. Matar says CGCC is working with those potential employers to help increase their willingness to hire students with an AIM associate degree.
CGCC is also starting to develop an AIM bachelor’s degree, though Matar says that effort is in the early stages. Rosu says she expects the bachelor’s program to roll out in 2024.
Rosu says CGCC is expanding its AIM efforts on many fronts, such as exploring embedding AI components in other STEM and non-STEM programs and also bringing AIM content into CGCC-high school dual-enrollment classes and non-credit classes aimed at industry.
“Artificial intelligence is pretty much what I consider the next Internet,” Rosu says. “It’s going to touch every area of every industry sector that you can name – from health sciences, to advanced manufacturing, to any area that involves how humans and machines work together. And that is why we are investing heavily in it – we want to give our students the tools they need to succeed.”