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Our Journey through the Nittany AI Challenge

Nyansapo Team
Members of Nyansapo, the 2020 Nittany AI Challenge winning team

In December 2019, Edward Amoah invited me to the buffet at West Dining Hall. We ate dinner, chatted about finals, and discussed the year in movies. Then, over a plate of freshly baked, hot chocolate chip cookies, he shared his vision.

“Imagine a world where every child has access to free, accessible literacy education. They could take full advantage of their schooling and build the skills to obtain a job, make a living, and support their families.”

Edward, along with Mumbe Mwangangi — a community organizer in Kenya — co-founded a venture called Nyansapo to use speech-to-text capabilities to decipher a student’s literacy level and provide data to make more informed decisions about students’ learning alongside the existing infrastructure of non-governmental organizations that are setting up community-based learning camps. This way, you could reach kids in underserved places at a cheaper cost over time.

I was immediately struck by the transformative power of Edward’s vision.

He then said to earn funding, he was going to submit a proposal to participate in the Nittany AI Challenge and asked if I wanted to help. The only adequate response in this situation was “Hell yeah.” And off we went.

I recruited three other team members onto the project. All of us were assigned team roles which were fluid; we could help complete other team assignments in other areas, but we were primarily responsible for our own. We set up a weekly debriefing and planning meeting in the Knowledge Commons in Pattee Library. On January 31, 2020 we submitted our proposal.

To our great relief, our proposal was accepted by the evaluation committee and we entered phase two — the Prototype Phase. By the end of March, all teams were expected to showcase a live prototype in front of judges. For us, this meant constructing a functioning Android app with basic speech-to-text capabilities. The next month, we went to work with weekly meetings and sub-team meetings — balancing a loaded schedule, course work, research, and extracurriculars. And as we left (or stayed) for spring break, suddenly, our outlook for what was next completely changed with the shutdowns around the world due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Those on our team who lived in the United States were sent home. Those of us from overseas stayed or flew home. Like the rest of the Penn State community and so many others, we were separated; though, we hoped quarantine would be short. The terms of the Prototype Phase changed: we needed to produce a succinct, recorded presentation showcasing our app and our vision as well as answer judges’ questions asynchronously. In addition, we needed to provide exhaustive, written documentation.

There was a whole host of virtual tools that aided us: Google Drive for document sharing and editing, Adobe Creative Cloud for app design and video editing, Microsoft Office for documentation, and PowerPoint, and, of course, Zoom replaced our weekly library meeting. All of us were adjusting to changes, so the deadline snuck up on us. After a sleepless night for some members, we submitted our documentation and presentation one hour before the deadline.

After two weeks, we discovered that we had made it through phase two and were on to the third and final phase where we had to create a minimum viable product (MVP). We knew that we needed to bolster our prototype and make it more robust and user-friendly.

Over the summer, we developed an extensive app layout in Adobe XD. Mumbe Mwangangi launched a community-outreach program using funds from the Challenge to safely obtain recordings of Kenyan students reading English. These recordings were used to customize our speech-to-text model for Kenyan students and make our model much more accurate for their dialects. We held coding sessions to implement Git, JavaScript, and React Native. To build our app, we familiarized our team with Java programming in Android Studio. In addition, we developed an extensive piece of documentation that captured our work over the course of the year.

Our success opened up amazing opportunities. A month before the final event, Professor John Gershenson, director of the Humanitarian Engineering and Social Entrepreneurship (HESE) program at Penn State, reached out to see if Nyansapo wanted to participate in the program to build our business model and continue making technical improvements. HESE is an integrated learning, research, and entrepreneurship program that brings together students and faculty to research, design, field-test and launch technology-based enterprises in low- and middle-income countries and because of our roots in Kenya, Nyansapo became the first project to transition from the Nittany AI Challenge to HESE (and, hopefully, we will not be the last). The funds that we earned through the first two rounds of the Challenge helped to launch our first community boot camp — led by co-founder Mumbe Mwangangi — to safely test our prototype and provide education for more than forty students while schools were shut down in Kenya.

We were proud to submit our final deliverables for phase three: our video presentation and written documentation. It was the culmination of a tremendous input of time and effort. All of us were eagerly awaiting the results; it was certainly a nervous two weeks. On September 25, 2020, the results were decided. Nyansapo was extremely fortunate to have won $10,000 from the Nittany AI Alliance.

Yet in hindsight, the most rewarding takeaways from the Challenge were the skills all of us learned on the job: how to write clearly and concisely; how to present our team’s vision coherently and with passion; how to develop a prototype by collaborating virtually from around the world; and even things more basic than those, like how to manage our time; how to take advantage of the resources available to us; and how to be confident about our skills. Personally, this is some of the valuable know-how I can trace back to the Challenge that I have applied in almost all of my endeavors afterwards. This is some of the expertise that any member of any team in the Challenge can gain.

Some potential participants have expressed a hesitance about starting or joining a team. The skills required to form a team and lead a team to set and conquer deadlines and goals — some of which are highly technical — can seem daunting. But that is precisely why this competition is called the “Nittany AI Challenge.” Through the difficulties, there is so much to gain. By participating as a beginner, an expert in your field, or a jack-of-all-trades, you will learn a wealth of new skills outside of your key domains through months-long collaboration. When you inevitably stumble or hit roadblocks, you will have expert guidance from Brad Zdenek — innovation strategist and program manager for the Nittany AI Alliance — who provides constructive, invaluable advice.

There is no question: this journey requires your time, your greatest effort, and your deepest commitment. If you go in with that mindset and possess a passion for your team mission, then the journey will be extremely fulfilling and one that you will cherish. You will set yourself up to experience one of the best programs that Penn State has to offer in the best possible way. In doing so, you will also have the great privilege and opportunity to make an impact.

There’s still time to participate in the 2021 Nittany AI Challenge:

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