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Robot tutors, summer internships and AI: Jefferson Trust awards $1.4M to 17 projects in UVa community

The University of Virginia Alumni Association’s trust that provides grant funding to initiatives within the UVa community has announced a new package of 17 grants totaling $1.4 million.

The grantees’ projects include summer internships with the Department of African American and African Studies, enhancing cybersecurity education and skilled apprenticeship programs for local middle and high school students.

The $1.4 million is “just barely” a record figure for the charitable group, according to Executive Director Brent Percival; the trust hit roughly $1.4 million last year as well. As were the 17 recipients who were selected by the board of trustees from a pool of 123 letters of inquiry, Percival said.

“The thing is looking at what is the best investment to bring about greatest progress for university, really going to engage the university, and enhance the student experience,” he told The Daily Progress. “Put simply, what’s going to be the biggest bang for the buck.”

Some of the grantees who received the most buck were “The World at Your Doorstep, Democracy’s Future in Your Hands” program, which was granted $100,000 to create new courses and research partnerships focused on the future of democracy; “Sports Performance Rehabilitation Integrating Neuromuscular Training” was granted $120,000 to reduce re-injury rates and help rehabilitate athletes post-knee surgeries; and a coalition of researchers received $200,000 to study how early-life sensory exposure after pre-term births can affect development.

“It wasn’t easy, and there were so many great ideas,” said Percival. “The thing we were really looking for is a project with a clear beginning and end date and how new, novel and relatable is this.”

It doesn’t get much more novel than artificial intelligence.

Hudson Golino, an associate professor in UVa’s department of psychology, began using artificial intelligence three years ago to study a person’s ability to differentiate between real news and AI-generated fake news.

Along with his wife, associate professor of psychology Mariana Teles, and two professors from the McIntire School of Commerce, Reza Mousavi and Jingjing Li, Golino created UVai Vanguard, an initiative focused not only on studying artificial manipulation but working toward making the public less susceptible to fake news. The coalition created the first metric that can measure a person’s susceptibility to misinformation, the “Misinformation Susceptibility Test.”

But Golino is only just getting started. With $112,870 from the Jefferson Trust, he will be able to afford a specific computer set to run advanced software, collect otherwise expensive data online and promote the program’s research findings at national and international scientific conferences.

“This wasn’t going to be possible, it requires good seed funding,” Golino told The Daily Progress. “We also want to pay for a team of graduate students, which wouldn’t be possible without the funds.”

Though the common perception of AI in relation to academics usually involves students using ChatGPT to write last-minute papers, UVai Vanguard will use AI as tutors for one of Teles’ introductory courses.

“We want to train a specific AI robot or tutor to learn the content of the class and all the technical aspects,” Golino said. “We want to give students access to an AI assistant specifically designed for that course to help students navigate content and learn more about the concepts.”

The robot tutor will be in the classroom beginning in either next semester or fall 2025, but Golino hopes to start work on other research projects as soon as next week. He is planning a study of using generative AI to identify emotions from videos, specifically analyzing how emotions vary throughout speeches given by politicians to better understand leaders all over the world.

As avant-garde as this research is, it requires significant funding.

Golino, though, emphasized the ease of the application process and working with the Jefferson Trust.

“As a researcher and scientist, the process of applying for funding was so different in terms of efficiency and how practical the process is,” he said. “You don’t need to write a lot, it does not ask for a lot of details. It’s a good model to fund science.”

Percival said that the simplicity of the application is rooted in the level of trust he already has for all of the applicants.

“It is a core belief of the trust that we have a simple process, because we don’t want complexity in the process to keep us from seeing the next great idea,” he said. “We want to see every great idea at UVa come to fruition. If we get bogged down in a difficult process, we’re in trouble.”

The final component of the grant process includes a five-minute presentation during which applicants get an opportunity to persuade the board of trustees, face to face, to invest in their idea.

For her five-minute presentation, Lisa Shutt ceded some of her time to two of her students.

Beginning more than a year ago, the associate professor for the Department of African American and African Studies partnered her course, “Engaging Local Histories: River View Farm,” with the Ivy Creek Foundation. The foundation is an organization based in Albemarle County that looks after what was previously known as River View Farm, which was formerly a community of Black farmers, craftspeople and businessmen.

After a successful spring semester, Shutt, along with two of her students, Tyler Whirley and Terrell Pittman, decided to create a summer internship program to carry on work the students began during the course. Whirley and Pittman even helped pitch the project to a room full of roughly 50 donors.

“It’s intimidating, but they just shined,” Shutt told The Daily Progress. “It was really clear to everyone what a deeply moving experience they had in the class and how they wanted other students to experience that as well. They’re the ones who sold it and demonstrated what a transformative type of experience this internship could be.”

With the $98,800 that the Jefferson Trust contributed to Shutt’s course and program she plans to fund three years of summer interns. With a cohort of two to three students each summer, the interns will conduct individual and group research projects on topics the Ivy Creek Foundation has identified, create new exhibits and signage as well as engage with the public through leading tours around the property.

“The students felt like they didn’t have enough time to do everything they wanted to do,” said Shutt. “There was not enough time during the school year to dig into all of the research. There’s just so much information students can learn.”

Source: www.dailyprogress.com

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