AI for everyone: BCIT Computing Instructor wants to teach non-programmers how to use Artificial Intelligence

Maryam Khezrzadeh’s curiosity has driven her to investigate the data behind a wide range of current issues. From mapping connections across more than 1,800 non-governmental organizations in BC, to the ecological impact of fashion, Maryam uses data to visualize and explore critical topics of the day.

“I’m an explorer and feel lucky to have an extensive technology toolset to rely on,” says Maryam. “I had very simple questions and interests – beauty, fashion – and I wanted to talk about how to make better choices in these areas. They have significant effects on the natural world and human health.”

“It seemed that the best way to communicate was to look for evidence, to search for answers in a systematic way. So I started sprinkling in data to convince people. It helps tell a story, and enables me to communicate messages to a larger audience.”

Maryam studied data mining and Artificial Intelligence (AI) during her masters, and has been developing software for more than a decade. She has high hopes for the impact her sector can have: “The promise of technology is a future in which we have understood and alleviated our (somewhat broken) relationship with nature and people.”

AI for non-programmers

This belief in the key role tech can play in helping humanity brought Maryam to teaching at BCIT Computing. It also certainly played a role in her most recent creation: Applied AI for Non-Programmers, COMP 1021. “We wanted to have a course where everyone who was interested but didn’t have a degree in computer science could start exploring AI.”

“The beauty of AI for me is that you solve a problem, but then you can automate it. Offloading some of the duty means you can do more things – you’re building tools to help you.”

“It’s this tooling aspect that really interests me – I’m not looking to build a robot human that acts similar to humans. I want to use AI to help humans.”

In fact, Maryam points out that most AI successes are in specific distinct fields. For instance, speech recognition is distilled and turned into services, applying it so it’s most useful to the most people. Bringing people with different backgrounds into a course in AI can help open up new applications that meld the best of technology with problems facing business and industry.

“Even if they’re not programming directly, students can learn how to think about data science and AI, how to ask the right questions, how to use it – it’s applicable everywhere,” says Maryam. “They will be fascinated by what can be done, and will want to explore even further.”

“It’s this tooling aspect that really interests me – I want to use AI to help humans.” ~Maryam Khezrzadeh

Athena Pathways Scholarships to support women in AI

COMP 1021 was developed by Computing Part-time Studies as part of Canada’s Digital Technology Supercluster capacity building project, Athena Pathways. The project aims to help more Canadian women see the potential of the tech sector, and AI specifically. It offers $500 scholarships to female students who complete relevant courses. Course development was also supported by a donation from TD Bank.

“I think women have a high potential to be really good at data science and AI – the concepts may seem out of reach but they are intuitive,” explains Maryam. “Women tend to be good at data modelling because they are often skilled at seeing relationships between things.” Maryam also thinks that as technology becomes pervasive in our lives, it’s important to have a female perspective in its development. “We’ll also talk about social issues and the limitations of AI – what it can do, what it can’t do.”

From software development to developing the future of tech

“It didn’t occur to me to consider teaching,” says Maryam. “But I really love it – talking about what I’ve learned helps me further understand it myself. The only way I can teach a course is by understanding its relevance, its usefulness.”

She adds, tongue in cheek: “Now I always tell people that teaching has even improved my relationships – before, I had to lecture to my poor family and friends all the time!”

“BCIT is the best place to get prepared” says Maryam. She tells her students that she learned the hard way, not always using her time well when she was at university. “It was mostly because I didn’t know how. No one taught us at the beginning how to sort out our work, and what things to consider when we start a project.”

Now teaching, Maryam emphasizes the importance of learning how to best approach a challenge, and how to work with others. “That’s what they will have to do, and I’m here to prepare them for it.”

Maryam will also continue to explore datasets and ask the right questions.

COMP 1021 is an elective in the Applied Computer Information Systems (ACIS) Associate Certificate, leading to the BCIT Computing Part-time Studies Computer Systems Technology (CST) Diploma. 

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