Blazing The Trail in AI Talent Development

Artificial Intelligence is one of the most important areas of technology today. It mimics human capabilities such as understanding, reasoning, communication and perception and can be applied to a multitude of use cases across almost all spheres of life – from healthcare and transportation to retail, marketing and financial trading.

In Singapore, AI has been identified as one of the core technologies that is essential to the country’s push to become “digitally ready”. As the national programme office for AI, AI Singapore’s (AISG) mission is to develop deep national capabilities in this field, in particular to “grow our own timber” by developing the next generation of local talent.

To achieve this objective, we have adopted a transformative approach that starts with early acquisition of basic AI knowledge and awareness in primary school, and progresses through various stages of skills and capability development to ensure that new AI talents will be able to hit the road running when they enter the industry.

An adaptive curriculum
For a fast-moving field like AI, a traditional curriculum based on a relatively stable body of knowledge may not be the most effective approach to teaching and learning. We decided instead to borrow a concept from the software development domain and adopt agile methodology to deliver AI literacy to primary school students.

AI for Kids (AI4K)® is an adaptive programme tailored to pupils aged 10-12 years old. Just like agile development, the curriculum is not static but evolves in response to the latest developments, trends and issues in the AI world by incorporating topics of growing importance.

AI4K® takes an interactive approach using hands-on exercises to reinforce learning concepts as pupils progress through the lesson plan.

It takes a village

In developing an AI programme for children, we identify the key role of Parents and School volunteers early on that makes the programme outreach successful and sustainable. AI4K programme interfaces closely with this ‘AI Educator’ partners to enable them to have active roles to encourage and support the learning process of the children.

AI4K® was launched in June 2019 and by end March 2020, before the suspension of all school extra-curriculum activities due to the COVID-19 pandemic, 22 primary schools already had AI4K-certified instructor teams in place, delivering the programme to 384 students.

“It was a wonderful experience teaching the kids about AI. We could see from their faces that they really enjoyed the hands-on activities through the AI4K Bootcamp. It is indeed a great platform to provide a kick start to young kids to build their basic foundation in AI.” said Drishti, parent support group.

International Thought Leadership
AISG was invited to the Global Education Task Force for K-12 (EDUAI-20) this year, organised in conjunction with International Conference on Artificial Intelligence in Education (AIED-20).     The task force brings together national-level organizations and key opinion leaders to pool our collective knowledge and expertise in AI education for students all over the world. 

Our AI4K® programme was selected as a case study for the 10 July 2020 workshop, which our deputy director, Koo Sengmeng, shared to an audience of over a hundred international audience.

In recent years, AI has attracted a lot of attention from the public, and become a major topic of economic and societal discussion. AI already has a significant influence on various areas of life and across different sectors and fields. The speed and force with which AI is impacting our work and everyday life poses a tremendous challenge for our society and educational system. Teaching fundamental AI concepts and techniques has traditionally been done at the university level. However, in recent years several initiatives and projects pursuing the mission of K-12 AI education have emerged.

Improving data fluency
While AI4K® focuses on building basic AI literacy in younger children, the AI for Students (AI4S)™ programme takes secondary and tertiary students to the next stage of data fluency by equipping them with programming and data skills.

To support their learning journey, educators from the Ministry of Education’s public schools can tap on AISG’s partnership with DataCamp to leverage the latter’s learning platform for teaching purposes. Students can also embark on independent learning in the lessons under AI4S which include learning Python programming and Git, which are necessary skills to get involved in working with AI.

Since AI4S® was launched in November 2018, it has reached out to more than 19,000 students across the Singapore public schools. 

For my past two years of experience with AI4S, it has been a remarkable programme for both students and educators alike, because in addition to offering free access to the Datacamp modules, it is constantly developing more free AI educational content in the AI Makerspace, where one can delve deeper with learning, doing and sharing of content and applications related to AI. Indeed, I have personally benefited very much from AI4S, and certainly hope this programme will eventually become an integral part of the educational journeys of students and educators."

Dr Chen Weiqiang, Lecturer in charge of Robotics and Computing Club,
Eunoia Junior College

"In the Robotics and Computing club, my CCA members and I feel that the AI4S programme has been effective in building our learning foundations in machine learning, whilst honing our Python programming skills through the rich content offered by the Datacamp platform, and the AI Makerspace."

Ho Jiawen Jane, President of Robotics and Computing Club,
Eunoia Junior College

 

Creating AI-savvy consumers
Another prong in AISG’s talent development efforts is to train students to be savvy consumers of AI products and services, so that they are able to identify opportunities for AI applications in their daily lives.

In line with this, an AI Foundation Course has been introduced for all polytechnic and Institute of Technical Education students as part of their digital awareness training. Available since April 2020, the course enables students to learn about modern AI technologies and applications, how to identify potential use cases and to build a simple AI model with online tools. All ITE students also have to take a module on the basics of AI in their first year of study. This exposes them to the different fields within AI and how the technology can be deployed in services and products.

“ITE is preparing all its students to be ready for a future where AI is pervasive, as well as training them to take on the emerging jobs. In the coming years, new AI-enabled products, services and businesses will be made available. New job roles and employees with AI skills will be in demand. We want to enable ITE graduates to be ready to seize the employment opportunities in the new digital economy, and contribute to Singapore’s progress and transformation.” said ITE chief executive Low Khah Gek1.

Aligning AI learning with industry experiences
To further enrich AI learning and ensure closer alignment with industry experiences and requirements, a new AI Makerspace has been launched at the Singapore Polytechnic (SP) to provide students with internship opportunities and the chance to be mentored by AISG engineers and staff from SP’s Data Science and Analytics Centre.

A satellite node of AISG’s existing Makerspace, the SP AI Makerspace allows students, including those from the Diploma in Applied AI & Analytics programme, to leverage tools such as AISG’s AI Bricks to build AI solutions.

The latest AI Makerspace is timely as the Services and Digital Economy Technology Roadmap cites AI as one of the key technology areas that will change the world and take Singapore’s economy forward in the coming years. As Singapore embarks on its Smart Nation journey, SP is glad to partner AISG to equip our youths and companies with much needed technological skills that will help our industries transform.” said Dr Edna Chan, Centre Director, Data Science and Analytics Centre.

AISG is also working with universities to expose more students to AI. Under a collaboration with the National University of Singapore and Singapore University of Social Sciences, undergraduates will be able to use credits from AISG’s AI for Industry (AI4I)® programme to help fulfil their degree requirements.

Open to industry professionals such as technical executives, managers and developers as well as the undergraduates, AI4I introduces participants to AI concepts and use cases, and equips them with the programming skills to build data and AI applications. It is hosted on AISG’s online AI Makerspace platform and leverages DataCamp for the learning resources that participants need to complete the programme.

Developing industry-ready AI talent
The AI learning pathways do not end here. For students and industry professionals who complete the AI4I course, the next step would be to embark on the AI Apprenticeship Programme (AIAP®) which aims to groom local Singaporean AI talent and enhance their career opportunities in AI-related roles. The apprentices will work on real-world industry projects and deepen their skills not only in AI and machine learning but also in software engineering skills for model deployment into production. AISG also provides an opportunity for aspiring start-ups to pitch their AI idea to develop an AI Brick which could result in a possible spin-off.

The programme also prepares the learner to attempt the technical test for AI Certified Engineer Associate – the first of four professional certification levels under the AI Certification, a professional qualification programme to recognise and award credentials to working professionals in AI-related engineering roles.

Conclusion
To sum up, as we develop the next generation of AI talent, we are mindful of the need to seed AI literacy in the formative years of education and to develop data fluency across the general student population. It is also important to inculcate awareness of the potential use cases and opportunities for AI, in order to spark new ideas and catalyse innovation. 

At the same time, for those with the interest and acumen in AI, regardless of their professional background, we will provide opportunities for them to gain a foothold in the industry through programmes such as AI4I and AIAP. We will also provide opportunities for certification and up-skilling.

In short, we will cast our net wide, keep the door open to talent, and work to ensure clear pathways for progress.

1 Extracted from “All ITE students to learn artificial intelligence in first year to take on future jobs” The Straits Times, 28 September 2020

“...So the best way to create a nation is to start from the schools.”
S Rajaratnam (Deputy Prime Minister of Singapore from 1980–85)

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