The defense of the nation depends to a large degree on a vital body of technically trained persons, but the Bureau of Labor projects shortfalls of tens of thousands per year in these fields. Other data suggest that less than half of the population are capable of doing the math necessary for this type of work, and worse yet, that more than half of that half have little, if any, interest in a technical career. Without informing and motivating the ‘capable but uninterested’ segment of our society, we have little chance of filling our needs. The following two charts from the Bureau of Labor Statistics data and Business-Higher Education Forum show the problems.
Notwithstanding efforts by career counselors to provide information to K-12 students about Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) careers, the students do not know what STEM professionals do on a day-to-day basis, what education is needed, or what STEM fields exist. This prevents many students from underrepresented populations from entering STEM disciplines, since students opportunities are impacted by their science and mathematics achievements as early as high school.
The MentorPal team is leveraging USC's experience in natural language processing to create computer enabled virtual mentors to address these issues. Optimally, students isolated by Socio-Economic Status (SES) or geography can have 24 by 7 access to a computer-generated MentorPal. Guidance counselors and teachers would be able to easily organize activities such as career fairs, where every student could talk with representative STEM role models, both live and virtual. Research has shown that such activities are highly effective for increasing awareness of, motivation for, and engagement in STEM careers. However, individual counselor and group job fairs do not scale well: professionals have limited time, and those who do volunteer will tend to be connected to the school. MentorPals could always be available for such events and for individual counselling.
When using MentorPal, the student can just ask questions via a microphone or type them in. The virtual mentor will reply conversationally within half a second with a germane answer, selected by a Natural Language Processing program. Then the virtual mentor will await the next question. Of course, various techniques are used when the question is outside the assumed context. Test users uniformly report a sensation of a conversational exchange.
Currently, the students who need these types of experiences the most are usually the least likely to receive them. At a recent summer STEM intern program, discussions with the interns found a surprising number were the progeny of parents with two or more advanced degrees, so these students already have access to experienced professionals.
Moreover, since in-person interactions rely on the rare opportunity for students' to find people with current STEM careers, students may erroneously form career goals based on media mischaracterization or be led astray by focusing on obsolete, non-technical fields, rather than the burgeoning STEM fields that are relevant to the future. Even more unfortunate is the fact that the entertainment industry has a ostensible distaste for technical personnel, with STEM professionals often portrayed as socially inept or malevolent.
There is an essential requisite for a STEM role-model amplifier. To respond to this need, the US must implement a technology or methodology that enables students to have access to the value of a frank, one-on-one discussion with real-life and engaging professionals. Then the students could understand more about what a career really requires, what the work is like, and whether that career might be a good match for them. To address this problem, the ICT/USC researchers are designing and testing a scalable tablet and web-based application called MentorPal that gives students the opportunity to converse interactively with short video-clips of real-life STEM professionals.
The image above is a screen capture of MentorPal as it is manifest in its local implementation, to be displayed on a tablet, a laptop or a desktop. As now instantiated, it accesses some of its utilities from the web, but those could also be downloaded and stored on the local machine for remote site use where internet connectivity bandwidth was an issue. The mentor shown is a Navy EMC who is currently a Masters student at USC. Below are two images showing different configurations of the web-enabled MentorPal. The image on the left is a screen-capture from an Apple iPad and the one on the right is from an Apple iPhone (6s). The mentors are a retired Navy Commander (Cryptologist) and a senior Navy Logistics analyst. Note the buttons for suggested topics to pursue with the mentor. These were added when it was found that secondary school students had little idea of what to ask a mentor about a prospective career. Most of the students who used MentorPal spent more time using this feature than typing in questions of their own. MentorPal also works using voice recognition via the computers' microphone, but this was seldom used in testing due to high-noise environment of the test sites.
MentorPal is more fully described in the Executive Summary.
MentorPal is temporarily available to be tried on-line using any username at: mentorpal.org.
Professional papers are available on-line from this page:
See some pictures of test events on these web pages:
Questions or comments may be addressed to: email@example.com
Webmeister, MentorPal team member, and Mentor:
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