Northeast graduate teaches how social media algorithms work

From the ease of facial recognition technology to the excitement of TikTok, algorithms have offered the modern world many comforts and benefits; however, such software can also pose privacy and security threats if not carefully designed.

That’s the lesson four graduate students from Northeastern Khoury College of Computer Sciences sought to instill in high school students this summer through “The Power of Algorithms,” a course they designed as part of SMASH Northeastern.

The three-year, tuition-free college preparation program enables students of color, who have historically been underrepresented in STEM, to study a range of science and technology subjects so that they can pursue a career in the field. The program is funded in part by Akamai Technologies, which also works with Khoury College to provide out-of-class experiences for young scholars who live on the university’s campus in Boston.

The Power of Algorithms, a computer science elective, was among the electives offered to this summer’s cohort of SMASH researchers. Designed by master’s students Jianhua Che, Lauryn Fluellen, Mariah Maynard and Dr. Shriya Dhaundiyal, the course focused on the apps and websites people use in their daily lives, the algorithms that power those programs, and the effects of these technologies, both positives and negatives. .

“The fundamental goal of this elective course was to show the power of algorithms and teach students how they can create these powerful tools,” says Dhaundyal. “We also wanted to show that there are consequences with this technology when it’s not thoughtfully designed.”

How it all came together

Preparations for the course began in April, with graduate students meeting every two months with weird laney, a computer science teacher and director of outreach, who guided them in planning their lessons. After two months, they adapted the class to meet the time and day requirements of the SMASH program and made the program understandable for young college students to learn in two weeks.

This meant that the four students each taught a different topic related to algorithms to high school students each day of the two four-day sessions. On the first day, Che gave the SMASH fellows a crash course in introductory search algorithms, explaining to them the two types of search algorithms used in the modern world and conducting a coding workshop, where he taught them how to write a small computer program. .

“I’m basically answering a question, what is an algorithm?” Che says. “At the end of this day, most kids know what an algorithm is, but we’re going a little deeper, explaining why we need algorithms to save time and money for our work. “

In the following days of the elective, fellow graduate students delved into the pros and cons of different algorithms. Maynard, who handled the third day of each session, focused on the behind-the-scenes mechanics of TikTok, a topic she and the high school students were happy to discuss. They talked about the methods the short-form video app uses to tailor content to its users’ interests, as well as some of the data privacy concerns about the software.

“We talked about how algorithms are created and what information they collect about you to run their algorithms,” Maynard says. “We talked about the cool sides of technology, but also the ethical issues around it.”

Controversial facial recognition

On the second day of the program, Fluellen tackled an even more controversial topic: facial recognition. The software uses artificial intelligence to match a person’s face from an image to a database of faces. While the technology can be useful for identifying people in an assortment of photographs on one’s phone or for easily unlocking a mobile device, it has been criticized for its potential to violate individuals’ civil rights.

It has also often been proven to be inaccurate, particularly with people of color, and various chapters of the American Civil Liberties Union have sought to have its use banned by law enforcement.

As part of her lesson, Fluellen talked with her students about the pros and cons of facial recognition because, she notes, “the whole idea of ​​the power of algorithms is to look at how algorithms play in our daily life”.

“One pro we’ve focused on is how facial recognition makes our lives easier, allowing us to log into phones and apps faster,” Fluellen says. “We also talked about how it can be inaccurate, especially with people of color, and can be harmful.”

At the end of each day, SMASH researchers were left with looming questions about how to create algorithms ethically so that the benefits of the technology far outweigh its drawbacks. Continuing with this theme, on the last day of each session, Dhaundyal introduced high school students to the topic of cybersecurity and explained how algorithms can potentially become destructive tools if not designed properly.

Students speak in depth

Since young scholars grew up with this technology, they were able to talk in depth about the topics it covered, says Dhaundiyal.

“I asked them: for whom is this technology particularly useful and harmful? Then I moved on to ransomware and malware attacks and why we need to protect data,” she says. “The students were really intrigued and they had so many innovative and creative responses that we hadn’t thought of.”

According to Dhaundiyal, the four-person team’s large set of lessons can be attributed in part to the fact that none of them have formal computer training. They are part of the Align Master of Science in Computer Science degree program, a program that allows students with undergraduate degrees in non-technical fields to earn graduate degrees in computer science. Che’s expertise is in economics, Fluellen’s in cognitive science and linguistics, and Maynard’s in chemistry.

Dhaundyal, whose previous training and work was in dental surgery, notes that the group’s diversity of interests has helped elevate their SMASH course, allowing them to bring diverse opinions and areas of knowledge to their classes.

“The fact that we have such different backgrounds allowed us to bring different perspectives, which was really powerful,” says Dhaundyal. “It was really insightful even for me, as a person who was teaching.”

Build relationships with high school students

Like the SMASH fellows they taught, Align students are also learning computer science, as Che points out. However, their new computer skills have also made it easier for them to connect with high school students, some of whom “are like hackers” and others who are still early in their computer training, he notes.

“We just learned computer science for two semesters, so we’re totally in the shoes of these students,” Che says. “It’s our advantage.”

Although the group is early in their master’s program, Dhaundiyal and Maynard have taught beginner-level computer classes to young students in the past, Dhaundiyal in India and Maynard in Philadelphia. These experiences helped prepare them for the SMASH program and allowed them to empathize with young scholars when they encountered obstacles in their coding.

“That’s where I developed my love for computing and started thinking about Align,” Maynard says of his previous teaching experience. “I knew I would be able to take topics that I recently learned and relate them to students younger than me.”

“It was easier for me to relate and understand these small obstacles faced by students,” adds Dhaundyal about his journey. “This program was not designed to frustrate them, but to make them fall in love with CS.”

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Sharon D. Cole