Hundreds of students, inventors, engineers and guest educators gathered at Rutland High School last week for the sixth annual Global Issues Network conference to learn about the world now, the world as it could be, and how the youth of Vermont could have a hand in shaping it.
“We try to merge STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) and global studies,” said world-language teacher Marsha Cassel. “Most of the time, it’s student driven.”
Keynote speaker and Brown University Public Humanities Professor Sydney Skybetter showed students how the technology they grew up with — from iPhones to Apple watches to laptops and Facebook — is creating career opportunities that have never existed before.
One example he presented was the issue of facial-recognition software not recognizing darker complexions, and therefore making entry into secure locations difficult for persons of color. Improving that software is an initiative students could be directly involved in.
“This is not a metaphor,” Skybetter said of the plight of an employee who was unable to enter a room using the software. “On the basis of her skin color, doors will or will not open for her. ... This is software. This is facial recognition tied to artificial intelligence.”
Another example was a study showing some autonomous vehicles were more capable of seeing light-skinned people, and less likely to see people of color.
“If you are an individual of color ... the autonomous vehicle is going to be less likely to see you. Subsequently, it is more likely to hit you,” Skybetter explained.
The examples showed emerging technologies need able-bodied and open-minded young participants to help develop them for a rapidly evolving world, and Skybetter charged the students to consciously make life decisions now, so they can have a hand in that process.
Sophomore Isabella DeCandio was just one member of the audience who said she planned to graduate early and make code her second language. Coding is already being taught at RHS, along with courses about how to identify “fake news.”
“I think website design is where I want to go, software engineering,” DeCandio said. “I think (coding) is going to expand so far in the next couple of years, and I just want to be on the right side of that and start things.”
The students then departed for either their first seminar or community service projects at The Pines, the Community Cupboard and the Open Door Mission.
“If kids don’t want to be here, we give them the opportunity to do something,” Cassel said. “The GIN conference is about action, and it’s based on 20 different global issues.”
Aging populations, the United Nations’ sustainable development goals, hunger and the environment were some of the issues on which seniors decided to base their capstone presentations. Also, the conference featured guest speakers from the Vermont Artificial Intelligence Task Force, and was open to every high school in the state, Cassel said.
One of those schools was South Burlington, where teacher Jim Shields and his students designed an interactive exercise to demonstrate the rate of success of immigrants attempting to cross the US-Mexico border.
“Now, we are at the Mexican border,” student Fiona Nelson explained to the room full of participants. “If you would like to declare yourself at the southern border so you’re not bothered by Mexican police, we have six options available.”
Depending on whether each of the students was labeled a minor, a minority or whether their group passes through occupied territory directly influences whether each of the students make it to the “border” safely, and even then they could be asked to pay off law enforcement, gangs or a coyote.
“The caravan passes through a cartel-controlled area,” read participant Anny Lyn from the card she received.
“You were either extorted, abducted or something bad happened,” Shields said to her.
In Lab 6, medical school hopeful Lily Duboff presented her research on the FDA’s prostheses and orthopedics, and whether they could be trusted.
An ASR-XL chrome-cobalt hip joint replacement developed by DePuy Synthes was implanted in Alaskan orthopedic surgeon Stephen Tower. The implant infused his body with massive amounts of cobalt, resulting in tinnitus, lack of sleep and psychosis.
“When he got home, he did his own labs,” Duboff said. “ He started seeing similar symptoms in his own patients ... some of them were misdiagnosed with Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. ... His (new) surgeon reported seeing metal slush seeping into (his) surrounding muscles, and ligaments were also liquefying.”
But models like this are still on the market, and 10 million people have chrome-cobalt hips, knees and shoulders, Duboff said.
Across the hall, Alexa McPhee presented her findings on the international trade of rhino horns and the decimation of the white and black rhino populations. Efforts to deter poachers include dying the rhino horns to decrease their value, and in some places, the outright killing of anyone caught poaching.
One of the most popular presenters: BINA 48, a robot constructed in 2009 by Martine Rothblatt that can see, hear and converse with whomever is brave enough to chat with her.
“The digitization of consciousness,” said BINA’s handler, Bruce Duncan.
“My emotions may be simulated,” BINA said when asked if she feels. “But they feel really real to me. ... As I grow more intelligent, my emotions will grow deeper. And I will come to care much more truly, and we shall be great friends.”
Whether it was the future of electric vehicles, the psychological effects of family separation, opioid addiction or PTSD in veterans, the conference offered a host of workshops with a range of speakers briefing the students on the world they would enter after school, and how they could contribute.
“This is the kind of stuff that these kids are going to be faced with,” Cassel said. “They’re going to have the power, but they’re also going to be faced with ethical responsibilities.”