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Learn more about the PowHERful 2019 Austin Enrichment Conference. The Enrichment conferences are a mix of lectures, panels, networking, and a technical workshop, giving young…

Recently, the IBM Austin campus hosted its second PowHERful Austin Enrichment Conference, and it’s safe to say this one was bigger than the last.

If you aren’t familiar with the PowHERful Foundation, it’s a foundation co-founded by Soledad O’Brien to uplift and support young women to and through college, including partnering with companies like IBM to provide STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) content during their local enrichment conferences. PowHERful does more than just that, it also provides scholarships and other opportunities to girls from ages 14-23.

girls at conference

The Enrichment conferences are a mix of lectures, panels, networking, and a technical workshop that give the young women hands-on experience with technology that they might not otherwise have the opportunity to do.

Why a chatbot lab?

During the last IBM Austin Enrichment Conference, the young women built a Natural Language Understanding application using NODE-Red, parsing news feeds for sentiment analysis during the cognitive challenge portion of the day. For the 2019 conference, Kimberly Morick (IBM Global Business Services) and Amara Graham (IBM Cognitive Apps) again teamed up to brainstorm new ideas for the content in case there were any repeat attendees.

They decided on a chatbot exercise using Watson Assistant because it would allow the young women to build a chatbot back end entirely in the browser and give them a little behind-the-scenes knowledge about how AI assistant devices like Alexa or Google Home work, only without the voice component.

This would also enable discussions around machine learning, AI, and acquiring data — all important hot topics for anyone growing up in this age of AI everywhere. These young women asked tons of great questions last year, and the team had to be ready for it.

This exercise ended up working really, really well! The young women were able to understand the three main components of a chatbot — intents, entities, and dialog — and many of the teams were able to enhance the example beyond the workshop material.

girls working

Now, you might be asking yourself, what kind of chatbot did they make? The exercise was a pizza ordering chatbot, similar to this IBM Developer code pattern. It’s a great introduction to the Watson Assistant service, but also shows slightly more complex logic in the dialog nodes.

Experience and execution

After deciding on the chatbot exercise, recruiting volunteer IBMers (thank you for getting up early on a Saturday!), and preparing 65 laptops with IBM Cloud accounts, the day finally arrived. Young women arrived at the IBM Austin campus in droves, some by the busload. In the end, over 150 young women attended the PowHERful Austin Enrichment Conference.

Sheba Turk, emcee for the day, kicked off the conference with an enthusiastic welcome and an introduction to what the girls would be accomplishing that day. In addition to the AI exercise led by IBM, the young women would also discuss body language, health and stress management, creativity in business, and more. After encouraging the young women in the audience to meet someone new and take a selfie together, Sheba handed the microphone to Jesus Mantas (IBM Global Business Services), Kimberly, and Amara to introduce artificial intelligence, Watson, and the chatbot exercise.

The girls worked in groups and dove into the exercise, applying the chatbot basics lesson from earlier to building their own chatbot with Watson Assistant. Many were able to complete the full exercise and were encouraged to add on to their chatbot. Some groups expanded on their pizza chatbots to include full menus, adding sodas, sides, and desserts. Several groups created entirely new chatbots from scratch, including a dating chatbot and a chatbot for planning a party. One of the groups created a chatbot as an emergency response system.

During the exercise, the young women took a break to have an “Ask Me Anything” session with Jesus Mantas. The young women in the audience were engaged and took the opportunity to ask tough and important questions, like “How does a neural network work?”, “What’s the best quality a leader can have?”, “How can you use machine learning and AI in your career?”, and questions around gender equality in the workplace.

At the end of the day, the young women attending the PowHERful conference left with both the STEM skills and soft skills that are needed in today’s career landscape. It was inspiring to see so many young women with passion and engagement around their futures and the future of technology.

If you’re interested in getting involved with the PowHERful foundation, find out how you can become a mentor. You can also take a look at events that IBM is hosting.

Read more: Changing the world one woman at a time by Maria Bartolome Winas