Alexa Skills Inventor boosts AI education, drives student engagement

The program exposes students to computer science as they create their own Alexa skills.

Amazon changed how people shop, revolutionized cloud computing, and developed popular technologies like Alexa. The company is now bringing its innovation and expertise in voice-activated artificial intelligence to education.

Take the Alexa Skills Inventor program. The program, focusing on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), is using Alexa to help students learn about AI. Available through MIT's App Inventor, an open-source platform for programming smartphone and tablet apps, Alexa Skills Inventor lets students create their own Alexa applications to help solve math problems or perform tasks like generating random facts about geology when asked.

By providing a program that encourages creativity and critical thinking, Alexa Skills Inventor is meant to equip a new generation with the technological skills it needs to help shape its future.

“Alexa Skills Inventor lets students code their own Alexa Skills,” said Rohit Prasad, Alexa senior vice president and head scientist, in opening remarks at the Day of AI event sponsored by MIT's RAISE (Responsible AI for Social Empowerment and Education) program on May 18 at the Dearborn STEM Academy in Roxbury, Massachusetts. “The skills are built with block code, making it easy for anyone to learn the basics of voice AI and how to program it.”

Block coding converts text-based code into visual "blocks" that can be dragged and dropped to create computer programs.

The Day of AI marked the official launch of the Alexa Skills Inventor program. According to Paul Stubbs, principal technical evangelist for Alexa, the Skills Inventor program is a significant development in AI education — not least due to its ease of access. “Students in the U.S. who are 14 years old or older can sign up, and teachers can deliver it any time as part of their curricula,” says Stubbs.

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Students do not need to provide personal information like their names, addresses, or e-mails to participate, and there’s no Amazon device required. Instead, teachers create accounts and use randomly generated logins so students can code with Alexa in their internet browsers, an approach that fosters an inclusive and supportive environment that encourages creativity and exploration.

The program is a product of Amazon Future Engineer, Amazon’s global philanthropic education initiative, which gives young people access to computer science learning opportunities. Prasad said it underlines Amazon’s commitment “to helping educate the next generation of STEM leaders through fun, hands-on experience.”

For the long run

To deepen the impact of the Skills Inventor program, Amazon Future Engineer highlights STEM events like the Day of AI and underwrites efforts to bring the program to students from underserved and historically underrepresented communities.

MIT RAISE’s Day of AI programming helped introduce Alexa Skills Inventor to thousands of teachers and tens of thousands of students around the globe. Amazon’s contributions also included a donation of $25,000 to Boston Public Schools to support and encourage AI education initiatives for their students.

The pursuit of inclusiveness underpins a broader goal Amazon Future Engineer has in view for Alexa Skills Inventor, says Victor Reinoso, global director of education philanthropy at Amazon.

“Computer science is a rewarding career, but computer science literacy and fundamental coding skills will benefit any young person who wants to make an impact in the future, regardless of their career path," said Reinoso. "Amazon Future Engineer’s mission underscores Amazon's commitment to making our customers' lives better — and for the long run."

In the classroom

A number of students started using the Alexa Skills Inventor program in a soft launch late last year. "This program has made me think more about what majors I want to choose,” one Mississippi high-school student said. “I was thinking about doing engineering, but you know, this computer science and tech part, I’m more into it!”

Fresh from introductory sessions last fall, teachers were just as passionate about integrating Alexa Skills Inventor with their lesson plans — an initiative that hinges on student buy-in.

Rebecca Calvert of Allegan, Michigan, said her students described the experience as “a blast” from start to finish. Kathryn Perry, a teacher at Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake High School in New York, said her students seized on Alexa Skills Inventor after preparatory sessions to spearhead innovations of their own “like number-guessing games and joke-telling apps.”

These are encouraging responses to the program. Born of collaboration and rooted in fairness, the program empowers students while reinforcing the concept that inclusive education and technology can together help shape a better future.

To take part, sign up for the Alexa Skills Inventor program and choose lesson plans that come with everything they need to make teaching voice AI easy and fun.

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