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Fifth annual girls’ school techathon focuses on AI for social good

Girls’ Day School Trust has held its fifth annual techathon to encourage more young women to pursue careers in tech

A UK-based network of independent girls’ schools has held its fifth annual techathon, gathering more than 100 pupils from 25 schools to work on projects using artificial intelligence (AI) for social good.

The Girls’ Day School Trust (GDST), which consists of 25 independent girls’ schools and 19,000 pupils from across the country, runs the techathon to inspire and encourage more young women to pursue careers in technology.

Only 15% of people working in engineering and programming roles are women, according to a report by the Tech Talent Charter, while a recent survey by Kaspersky Lab found that the gender imbalance meant over a third of women in the tech sector felt uncomfortable when embarking on their careers in IT.

Amy Icke, online learning and innovation manager at GDST, cited a number of reasons for women being so under-represented in the technology sector.

“Partly you can trace that back to the education system,” she said. “In co-education environments in particular, girls often feel under-confident in those settings. Add to that things like societal pressure.”

To combat this, the GDST invites female mentors and panellists to the techathon to help students and answer questions, highlighting the importance of having female role models.

Icke added that, within AI specifically, there was an ethical importance in getting women involved.

“Traditionally, a lot of our systems have been developed by male developers. I don’t want to stereotype that women will instinctively think more ethically or be more risk averse, but I think there is something about having different voices around the table that means different opinions are represented,” she said.

“We need to make sure we have good datasets to [help us make] informed decisions.”

Inventing AI tools with a social benefit

Tasked with creating a product or service that uses AI for social good, the attending students’ inventions were judged against their business credibility, design creativity, presentation quality and originality.

The AI products developed by the students, all aged between 11 and 18, ranged from tools that monitor micro-expressions to judge if a person is lying, to anxiety-relief chatbots and bullying detection algorithms.

The products were developed alongside introductory AI workshops, using tools from Google AI to get students thinking about the possibilities of the technology. The teams were helped by an all-female group of mentors.

“One of the real highlights this year has been the strengths of the mentors. The business acumen and the partnership between industry and schools that the mentors can give is not something we have much time for in schools,” said Icke. “The curriculum doesn’t really allow space for that.”

Three prizes were awarded at the end of the event.

Students from Belvedere Academy and Norwich High School For Girls took first place for their innovative agricultural tool.

Designed to help farmers in developing countries monitor their pregnant cattle, The Tail Won’t Fail tool gathers data on livestock to predict when they will give birth so that farmers can intervene when most appropriate, therefore allowing them to allocate their limited resources more effectively.

Students from Northampton and Sutton high schools came second with iAid, an earpiece which connects to Google Maps and uses voice recognition and simulated speech to help visually impaired people navigate.

The third prize – a People’s Choice Award – was selected based on votes made by the students themselves. This was awarded to students from Blackheath and Bromley high schools, who developed a language app that translates idiosyncratic phrases to help autistic people better understand them.

The techathon was a collaborative event in partnership with Mortimer Spinks and Skills Matter.

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