Students experience virtual reality by experimenting with the Microsoft HoloLENS on Friday during the Journeys in STE(AM) symposium at H. Lavity Stoutt Community College. (Photo: PROVIDED)

On Friday, Virgin Islands students helped clean up the oceans — virtually.

Onscreen, an entity powered by artificial intelligence combed through an ocean of colourful fish and other objects. However, it had to learn what was ocean debris and what was a fish. Each time the AI came across another object, its memory for recognising fish got better and better.

“Tyres do not belong in the water, but our fish do absolutely. And so does an octopus and an otter and a whale. But did you know that in oceans plastic debris can harm fish, seabirds, marine mammals? And one of the important portions of making sure that we are protecting the marine life is so that we can keep the oceans clean,” said instructor Danielle Colagio of Microsoft. “Now, same rules apply: The more that we provide, the more our AI learns.”

In the future, the girls who helped the AI learn to distinguish between fish and tyres could be building and programming such technologies for real.

That was the goal of the two-day seminar Journeys in STE(AM), held at H. Lavity Stoutt Community College and sponsored by the St. Lucia-based Aspire Artemis Foundation, which featured hands-on workshops conducted by a group of Microsoft associates.

During the event, 125 VI girls ages 13 and up learned in-person about the so-called “STEAM” fields: science, technology, engineering, arts and math. Another 600 participated virtually, according to the foundation.

The activities encompassed AI, nanotechnology, coding, encryption and more, all capped off by a journey into virtual reality with a HoloLens — a device described by Microsoft as “ an untethered mixed reality headset” that uses apps to help solve problems.

Besides nearly a day of activities, the symposium featured more than a dozen in-person and virtual panels featuring local and international professionals sharing their experiences about working in the field and their thoughts on its future.

The host of the event, Dr. Eliut Flores-Caraballo, is the founder and CEO of Digital Koru, a Puerto Rico-based information technology company.

He said he sits on several corporate boards, and in recent meetings he has attended, members “were all very, very concerned with the incredible scarcity of prepared talent. So that is the bad news.”

The good news, he said, “is that there are so many jobs available and there are so many opportunities for you to create your own company. So this is a great time to be a young woman, because the world is open to recognising your talents and to [giving] you all the opportunities that you need and deserve to move forward.”

He added that many people don’t realise the importance of STEAM entrepreneurs for a tourism-based economy like the VI’s.

“How can we protect our natural resources so that they are not destroyed, that they’re sustainable for long-term enjoyment and economic development through tourism?” he asked.

Popular travel platforms like Kayak and AirBnB demonstrate the STEAM fields’ importance to the industry, he pointed out.

“So it is very important that tourism is aware and supporting the development of STEAM careers,” said Dr. Flores-Caraballo.

One of Thursday’s panellists, Kevin Smith, was the perfect example. A VI-born former physics teacher and current chief engineer at Guana Island, he said the desire to study science can come from unexpected directions.

“I watched a movie with Samuel L. Jackson, and he was playing the engineer in the movie and what he did was just beautiful, to be able to design various devices using chemistry. And that just sparked my interest from there,” he said.

However, beyond that spark, support from others is vital, he said.

“My mom never told me I can’t do anything. And she was always like, ‘This is what you want to do? Go for it,’” he said. “Just from a teacher’s perspective, but a lot of students don’t have this access or this. So they really don’t know.”

Jian Jeffers, a science teacher at Elmore Stoutt High School who works part-time at the college’s mangrove nursery, said that particularly for women and girls, success often depends on having the right kind of opportunities and seeing successful women already working in STEAM.

“I believe that even when there are opportunities, especially here in the BVI, that they aren’t necessarily advertised as much as they should be,” she said.

The founder of Aspire Artemis, Hermina Johnny, has strived to expose girls to STEAM fields. The St. Lucia native worked with the United Nations in several capacities, “specialising in gender, human rights, sustainable development, inter-agency coordination and internal communications,” according to her biography.

During the symposium, she said her family was filled with female pioneers, prompting her to want to pass those opportunities on to other young women.

“Recognising the value that education brings to the wider society, my maternal great-grandparents were also educators on both sides,” she said. “I had ancestors who served as politicians, businesspeople, landowners, interpreters and teachers. Education to them was of the utmost importance, and they instilled in their children the value of learning, growth and acquiring the best education possible.”

Deputy Premier Dr. Natalio “Sowande” Wheatley, who is also education minister, pointed out that as a small island developing state, the VI “has always had to be innovative to survive,” but that the STEAM disciplines have become particularly important to the territory’s survival.

“Changes in the world brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic and the climate crisis require us to adjust our approach to education,” he said. “The world is more digital now because of Covid. And we must ensure that our young people have the training needed to function in the digital economy.”