The Nittany AI Alliance launches its Leadership Academy

11/01/2022

By Caryn Anderson

Patrick Elisii leading a conversation and leading the way for students interested in joining the AI Challenge. Photo: Provided.

Since March 2021, when HappyValley Industry last caught up with Nittany AI, there’s been an exciting new opportunity for students who want to take part in the Nittany AI challenge (which “offers Penn State students the opportunity to address pressing global issues and build solutions using AI and machine learning”), but don’t know where to start: the new Leadership Academy, launched in part by student outreach liaison Patrick Elisii.

“I want to do it again, and I want to do it right”

In Elisii’s freshman year, the computer science major wasn’t familiar with artificial intelligence or professional-grade development. Then, he received an email about the Nittany AI Challenge, a competition that allows Penn State students to address global issues and create AI and machine learning-based solutions and, after receiving some encouragement, Elisii decided to give the challenge a try.

“I ended up trying to build a team and found out that my TA was building a team I was able to join. I helped out in any way that I could. We ended up getting past the [challenge’s] first round but failed in the second round,” he explained.

Despite the disappointment, though, he was ready to try again. Even better, that first experience planted the seeds for what has now become the Nittany AI Alliance’s Leadership Academy. This innovative resource was formed by Elisii and other program veterans with the express purpose of helping younger kids find their way within the challenge. “We’re here to build up these young students,” he noted.

As for his early experiences with the AI Challenge, his first failed attempt didn’t dampen his enthusiasm. Instead, it led him to the next step. In fact, through the challenge, Elisii secured an internship with Nittany AI Advance for the following summer. From there, he completed projects in the summer and the following fall, connecting him with his eventual partner in the next year’s challenge.

“I came back the next year and my whole team had graduated,” Elisii recalled. “I wanted to do it again, and I wanted to do it right.”

For that year’s challenge, Elisii’s team discovered that Penn State was wasting significant money paying fees to recycling companies based on level of contamination. He explained that the more contaminated your recycling items are, the more you have to pay. Because people were putting items in the wrong bins, the school was essentially wasting money.

“We had to figure out what we were doing wrong. We figured out that we weren’t providing people with any tangible skills, we were just having conversations. For a club connected to the Nittany AI Alliance, we wanted to prepare students for the Challenge and advanced programs instead,” Elisii said.

The team set out to fix this problem using AI. It built a mobile app to classify recyclables and find out where to put those recyclables. Essentially, users could take a picture of their recyclables and the app would tell them where to put it. The team also developed a trash can that sorted the recyclables using AI.

“That fall, we ended up coming in second and winning $10,000.” Elisii said.

We wanted to provide people with tangible skills

Elisii joined the AI Student Society in the fall of 2021 as the treasurer. Throughout the fall semester, the team would present to the club about AI and different industries. They had conversations about topics such as the ethics of AI and social media or AI and healthcare.

The initial Student Society meeting had approximately 30 attendees. Attendance slowly dwindled over the next few meetings until only one person came to the meetings. And from there, the idea was formed.

“We had to figure out what we were doing wrong. We figured out that we weren’t providing people with any tangible skills, we were just having conversations. For a club connected to the Nittany AI Alliance, we wanted to prepare students for the Challenge and advanced programs instead,” Elisii said.

That spring, the club hosted workshops on skills related to the Nittany AI Alliance Challenge and had the teams that were competing come in for workshops like “How to Organize Your Team.” It went very well and there was a positive response.

Elisii noted, “Since the challenge doesn’t start until January, we decided to host the Leadership Academy in Fall 2022. This allowed us to prepare students with a mix of technological and entrepreneurial skills, so they’ll be ready come the challenge cycle in the spring.”

Patrick Elisii and the rest of his team: Alex Baptista, Avi Bewtra, Erica DiCarlo and Matthew So. Photo: Provided.

The Leadership Academy understands that many students entering the AI challenge are freshmen or sophomores, and they’re intimidated. “It takes a certain level of blind confidence to try it, because it’s pretty difficult,” Elisii said. “But once we have the support system in place, we can build these freshmen and sophomores up and filter them right into the challenge and advanced programs to get them set up there. Having those programs on your resume gets you a job almost anywhere you are.”

“We hope [the Leadership Academy] grows into a prestigious program,” Elisii continued. “We created the model based on organizations currently at Penn State, including the Sapphire Program and the Lion Fund, that set kids up for success.”

Crediting the AI challenge and advanced projects he’s worked on with teaching him almost every technical thing he knows, Elisii can’t stress the value of the Nittany AI Alliance and the programs it offers enough.

“The first internship I had with the Alliance was so difficult. I had imposter syndrome, but came out of what was essentially a data science project, having learned about workflow, algorithms, presenting to leadership, and gained a solid foundation for where I went after that with my career.”

Currently a senior, Elisii has an entrepreneurial spirit and the desire to start a company some day. For now, he’s honing his engineering skills. He aims to get a job after college in software engineering or data science development and “go from there.”

To learn more about the Nittany AI Alliance, the Challenge or The Leadership Academy, visit https://nittanyai.psu.edu

Live, Work, Play…Happy Valley!

Happy Valley Industry is the voice for innovation, research and industry in the Happy Valley region of Central Pennsylvania.

Powered by Affinity Connection

© Copyright 2022 - All Rights Reserved
linkedin facebook pinterest youtube rss twitter instagram facebook-blank rss-blank linkedin-blank pinterest youtube twitter instagram