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Around the Pond

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A group of people standing outside a brick building on the UMass campus, surrounded by bushes

Photo: Lisa Beth Anderson

After affirmative action

A ‘beacon’ and national model

In the wake of the Supreme Court’s 2023 ruling disallowing race-based affirmative action in college admissions, many feared that years of progress in increasing access to higher education would be jeopardized.

Nefertiti Walker, vice chancellor for equity and inclusion, affirms a commitment to diversity as a source of pride for UMass. “Accessibility and being a beacon for social mobility are deeply embedded into the fabric of who we are as an institution and in many ways, who we are as a state,” she says.

For UMass, fresh efforts simply extend the holistic admissions focus that’s been in place for nearly a decade—one that considers traditional factors like high school grades but also includes a larger view of the applicant’s life experiences. Since 2011, the percentage of underrepresented minorities in incoming classes has increased more than 70%.

Citing research on which of the measurable traits among high school students are “the most predictive elements of success in college,” Massachusetts Secretary of Education Patrick Tutwiler reported in October that the state-level Board of Higher Education voted to keep college admissions ‘test optional’ and not require SAT or ACT scores at Massachusetts state institutions of higher education, including UMass Amherst. “As we know,” Tutwiler says, “an emphasis on entrance exams has been a barrier for students of color, economically disadvantaged students, and multilingual learners for many years.”

The university’s innovative applications revamp prompted the White House to host Chancellor Javier Reyes to speak about “Strategies for Increasing Diversity and Opportunity in Higher Education.” Reyes shared how, after the court’s ruling, UMass added an essay prompt that asks applicants to choose a community they belong to and describe its significance in their lives. He notes that community can be broadly defined, “including shared geography, religion, race/ethnicity, income, ideology, and more.”

Campus leaders also recognize that admissions processes are not sufficient. “Once [students] are on our campus,” Reyes said, “do we see them engaging and having a sense of belonging? … This is how we will measure our success.”

See Chancellor Reyes’s address at the White House:

 


 

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UMass students Sarah de Carvalho and Sapna Parihar sitting at a classroom table using laptops

Sarah de Carvalho ’23 and Sapna Parihar, ’23, ’25MS

Photo: Zinj Guo

The Quest for Ethical Tech

Students help write rules for ethical AI

By
Sophie Hauck ’25

Artificial intelligence (AI) chatbots shook college campuses in late 2022, sending faculty members scrambling to regulate students’ use of AI. The swift rise of AI also caught the attention of the Biden administration, which opened a public commenting period to determine how to govern this growing technology field.

Dozens of UMass students answered the call, thanks to an assignment given by Informatics Program Director and senior faculty member Michelle Trim in her undergraduate and graduate-level computer science classes.

“Assume you’re designing the ethical rules for this piece of technology, and they have to be followed,” Trim told students. “What policies would you build?”

Eli Boahen ’24MS partnered with other computer science students to propose that Congress establish a regulatory agency akin to the IRS to audit AI developers, ensuring their products meet predetermined ethical standards before coming onto the market.

“Some folks were questioning whether or not they even wanted to work in computer science anymore because the ethics were so questionable, and that’s where the curiosity goes into urgency,” Boahen says. “When it comes to AI, it’s very, very real for us.”

Eli Boahen sitting in a classroom with someone holding a laptop up next to them

Eli Boahen ’24MS in Trim’s classroom

Photo: Zinj Guo

In November 2023, the Biden administration did, in fact, issue an executive order directing the National Institute of Standards and Technology to develop standards for the safety, security, and testing of AI models—an evaluative model not unlike the one recommended by UMass students.

When Boahen applied for a master’s degree in data analytics and computational social science at UMass, they were interested in the ethics of using particular pieces of assistive technology such as continuous glucose monitors, which collect biometric data on people with diabetes to help them manage their diet and activity. Boahen was concerned about how device users were unable to consent to the distribution of their data.

“What made me want to go back to graduate school was a concern that I saw in the overlap of technology design and data ethics,” says Boahen, who found there was a “lack of conversation” surrounding this intersection and returned to school “to explore that conversation and see where it leads.”

Learning about AI ethics in Trim’s classroom made Boahen realize they wanted to pursue their doctoral degree after finishing graduate school. Many of Boahen’s classmates took Trim’s course during their final semester at UMass and have since gone on to work in programming or policymaking, where they are already feeling the effects of a budding AI revolution, Boahen says.

“There were folks who were questioning whether or not they even wanted to work in computer science anymore because the ethics were so questionable, and that’s where the curiosity goes into urgency,” says Boahen. “When it comes to AI, it’s very, very real for us.”

Having a real opportunity to speak to the White House and potentially shape future AI policies made for “a lot of joy in the classroom” during the class period when students formally submitted their comments to Congress, Trim says.

“What this activity did for students is it took a real situation where somebody important was genuinely saying, ‘What do you think about this?’” says Trim, who disagrees with those who claim that members of Generation Z don't care about current events. “I think young people feel disempowered, and feeling disempowered is very different from feeling disconnected or disengaged,” says Trim. “When you feel disempowered, you don’t necessarily know how to intervene or insert yourself, and it just all feels like a lot.”

During a semester when AI chatbots threatened to make human creativity obsolete, Trim’s students took advantage of the commenting period to work together and develop innovative strategies for regulating AI—no algorithms, just critical thinking.

“They always had things to say,” Trim says. “They were never tuned out, they just never had anybody ask them in a way that mattered.”

Read more about the ethical quandaries facing AI.

 


 

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Anthony Santiago standing against the wall in a hallway

Anthony Santiago, who teaches at CHS and mentors incoming teacher candidates in his role as site coordinator for the 180 Days program

Coming full circle in Springfield

“I continue to choose Springfield,” says Anthony Santiago ’14MEd, a graduate of the College of Education’s 180 Days Secondary Education Program in Springfield.

Since 1998, students in the program have been catalysts for improving urban education. Aspiring teachers study and teach full time in Springfield Public Schools (SPS), one of the most diverse districts in the commonwealth. And, in just one year, they gain a master’s degree, an initial teaching license, and a supportive professional network—in addition to a wealth of teaching experience.

Santiago isn’t alone in his commitment to the Springfield area. As of this year, 88 alumni of the program continue to work in SPS, 28 of whom work at Springfield Central High School (CHS). Santiago—who teaches first-year science at CHS and also attended and graduated from the school—says he appreciates how his academic journey has come full circle.

“I realized CHS was the best place I could have been, and the best reason to have stayed,” he says. “It’s allowed me to give back to a school system and a city that helped me reach my goals.”