Amazon knows you don't have the AI skills for tomorrow, and has a plan to help

With AI literacy becoming as fundamental to future jobs as reading, Victor Reinoso - in an exclusive interview - details the many ways Amazon is working to bridge the education gap.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor

2023 Day of AI - Dearborn STEM Academy (Boston) 


Most people encounter Amazon when someone in a truck brings a package to the door. But Amazon is one of the most innovative companies on the planet, with major investments in infrastructure, supply chain, IT, and transportation.


Victor Reinoso, global director of education philanthropy at Amazon.


Of particular interest to our ongoing discussion about AI is the fact that Amazon has been incorporating AI and machine learning in its processes since long before "generative AI" was a hot buzzword.

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Now, however, Amazon is taking that AI expertise and bringing it to classrooms and virtual learning experiences. We had the opportunity to chat with Victor Reinoso, global director of education philanthropy at Amazon, about the future of education and AI. In addition to heading up Amazon's education philanthropy operation, Reinoso was deputy mayor of Washington D.C., which included oversight of the city's $1 billion+ education budget.

Reinoso was kind enough to do a deep dive with us into this topic, so let's jump right in.

ZDNET: Please introduce yourself and give us a little background on how you came to be global director of education philanthropy at Amazon.

Victor Reinoso: I have always been a passionate supporter of educating and training students in computer science disciplines to meet the demands of careers of the future. This is an initiative I championed before joining Amazon in 2020 in my roles across venture capitalism, consulting, and as the D.C. deputy mayor for education.

In my previous roles, I have worked to either start things up or turn things around across government, nonprofit, and private sector companies. At Amazon, I get to pull these threads together to invest in innovations and nonprofit partnerships that will better prepare and inspire young people to pursue careers of the future.


AFE Scholarships 2023 Chicago


ZDNET: What challenges do schools face in integrating AI education into their curriculums, and how can these be addressed?

VR: There is a lot of talk about the AI skills gap, but little discussion about the AI education gap. There's a strong appetite by teachers to deliver AI content to students, but they're finding it hard to get the tools and know-how to deliver it.

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In fact, our recent Accelerating AI Skills Through Education survey conducted with Access Partnership, found that 60% of educators believe foundational AI skills should be taught from Grade 6 through university, but nearly 70% lack the resources to teach the subject.

AI is quickly becoming part of our everyday lives, and it's safe to predict that many careers of the future will use AI-enabled tools in one way or another.

ZDNET: How can we rectify that education gap?

VR: This AI education gap can be tackled in a couple of ways, including funding educator training. We fund professional development for teachers to help school districts and educators implement sustainable K-12 STEM education initiatives, increase student awareness of career pathways, and build skills to improve job readiness.

Additionally, we can increase awareness of and access to tools and curriculum. Our recent research noted that one of the main barriers constraining educators' efforts to provide AI skills training is a lack of teaching resources and curriculum.

There are plenty of free tools and content widely available. For example, our recent AI Ready commitment aims to provide free AI skills training to two million people by 2025. We've launched three new initiatives to increase access to free AI resources.

Hour of Code Dance Party: AI Edition is a new collaboration with Code.org through Amazon Future Engineer that engages K-12 students and teachers in an hour-long introduction to coding and generative AI.

We're offering Amazon Web Services (AWS) Generative AI Scholarships, providing more than 50,000 high school and university students globally with scholarships to access a new generative AI course on Udacity for free.

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We're also offering eight new and free AI and generative AI courses to support professionals in the workplace and aligned to in-demand jobs. Courses range from foundational to advanced and there is something for everyone -- people of all ages and levels of knowledge.


2023 Day of AI - Dearborn STEM Academy (Boston) 


ZDNET: There's also the challenge of using AI responsibly. Any thoughts on this?

VR: Making responsible AI a critical part of the curriculum. Teachers recognize it's important for students to learn how to use AI responsibly. In fact, 60% of educators prioritize teaching responsible AI use as part of the AI curriculum.

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And as AI evolves, stewards will be essential to guide its application. Responsible AI is not work that can be done in a silo. It is truly a multidisciplinary effort that requires technology companies, policymakers, community groups, scientists, and others to come together to tackle new considerations as they arise.

ZDNET: In your role at Amazon, how do you work to bridge the gap between the technology industry's needs and the current educational offerings in AI?

VR: A huge part of my role is increasing awareness of opportunities and increasing access to exploration and education, particularly as it relates to computer science and other advanced technologies, such as cloud computing, machine learning, and artificial intelligence, which we believe will be as fundamental to jobs of the future as reading.

Many of the programs we offer through Amazon Future Engineer and other Amazon business units, including Amazon Web Services (AWS), prioritize giving learners and educators of all ages opportunities to not only increase their skills and training in these areas, but also give them exposure to help cultivate an interest in fields, such as STEM and AI. It's much easier to see yourself in a role if you've seen the role.


Amazon Future Engineer Career Discovery Day


ZDNET: How does Amazon's Future Engineer program tailor its approach to different age groups and learning levels?

VR: Amazon Future Engineer is a comprehensive childhood-to-career program aimed at increasing access to computer science education for students from underserved and underrepresented communities.

We offer a variety of programs, curricula, and immersive opportunities appropriate to different age groups to expose students and early learners to computer science and STEM and foster an early interest in these fields. This includes career tours, training, and curriculum for students and teachers for K-12 to help with early exposure.

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As students get older, we also offer various computer science challenges in schools and the Amazon Future Engineer Scholarship. The scholarship is an award of up to $40,000 for high school seniors pursuing a degree in computer science, engineering, or a related STEM focus at a college of their choice, which includes a paid internship at Amazon for eligible students.

We also offer a Teacher Ambassador fellowship, which provides educators with a two-year cohort experience of curated professional development and industry access to Amazon to advance equity in computer science. These are just a few of the many ways we tailor our approach across age groups.

ZDNET: What metrics or outcomes does Amazon use to measure the success of its educational initiatives like Amazon Future Engineer and AI Ready?

VR: We're customer-obsessed, even in our philanthropy, so customer metrics are critical. Let me share some examples. Because reach matters, we track how many teachers and learners engage with our initiatives.

The AI Ready commitment is in addition to AWS's commitment to provide free cloud computing skills training to 29 million people by 2025. On that journey, we've already helped more than 21 million people get access to free cloud computing courses.

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With the teachers and young learners that we reach with Amazon Future Engineer, it's important that our initiatives inspire them to keep learning and encourage others to do so. That's why we assess Net Promoter Score along with a metric called Intent to Persist, which measures a student's interest in continuing to learn about the topic. If students are excited to keep learning, we know we're making a difference.

ZDNET: How do you envision AI changing the landscape of education and learning in the next decade?

VR: I'm excited about what the future holds. AI is the most transformational technology of our time, capable of tackling some of humanity's most challenging problems. I see two big changes evolving the educational landscape.

First, AI-enabled tools will become standard in the classroom, alleviating some of the administrative burdens and repetitive tasks they are doing today. It's the type of transformation we're seeing currently take hold in industries like healthcare, where care providers are using AI-powered tools to help quickly triage X-rays, transcribe notes, and provide information to patients.

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I can easily picture a world where teachers are taking advantage of similar tools to make the capturing and transcribing (even translating!) their classes in real-time, smart chalkboards, and smart bots that can provide additional learning support to students outside the classroom.

The second is the integration of AI into the core curriculum. Updating universal K-12 Computer Science Standards to reflect the rapid advancements in technologies like artificial intelligence will become the standard, in addition to helping educators incorporate AI-enabled resources in their classrooms for students.

As we prepare students for careers of the future, the education landscape will evolve to ensure students understand the basics of what large language models are, learn about responsible AI, and develop the fundamental coding skills that are the basis of AI innovation.


2023 Day of AI - Dearborn STEM Academy (Boston)


ZDNET: What strategies do you recommend for educators who want to incorporate AI learning but lack the necessary resources or training?

VR: I would point educators to the many free or low-cost resources available online and through various local organizations to help educators get smart on these topics so they can teach them to their students.

At Amazon, we fund high-quality STEM curriculum and professional development for educators and also offer various scholarship programs to financially support continued education and online learning.

The career tours available on the Amazon Future Engineer website, along with other project-based learning modules there, include robust teacher resources and are a great way for both educators and parents to gain baseline familiarity and get excited to learn more.

ZDNET: How does Amazon collaborate with educators to develop AI-related curricula and teaching materials?

VR: We work with education partners, educators, and school districts to help fund and increase access to high-quality STEM and AI-related curricula. Amazon Future Engineer partners with organizations like the Computer Science Teachers Association (CSTA), Code.org, and ProjectSTEM to bring free computer science programming to schools and districts.

Our partnership with CSTA aims to 1) help teachers incorporate real-world career exploration initiatives in their classrooms for students, and 2) support efforts to update the CSTA K-12 Computer Science Standards to reflect rapid advancements in technologies like AI.

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The standards are a model for CS teaching and learning across grades K-12 for the 42 states that have adopted the guidance. These steps will help teachers ensure students have the foundational knowledge and AI education necessary to participate in a technologically driven workforce.

Additionally, our Amazon Future Engineer Teacher Ambassador program is a paid fellowship where educators engage in community listening, pilot differentiated strategies for teaching, share their insights, receive professional development opportunities, and connect with like-minded teachers.

Teacher Ambassadors are encouraged to seek out and actively listen to their community about their experiences, thoughts, and struggles with STEM and AI education and how these affect future careers and the workforce. The outcome of their efforts could inform future decisions on curricula and careers.


2023 Day of AI - Dearborn STEM Academy (Boston)


ZDNET: With AI expected to transform various industries, how do you foresee the demand for AI skills influencing career pathways for students?

VR: We're already seeing that jobs are being transformed by AI and we forecast that continued AI innovation will create new careers in the next 10-15 years. Amazon partnered with Tracey Follows, CEO, Futuremade, to predict AI-enabled careers of the future and we've identified several industries and roles that are poised to make a big impact and will reveal new previously unimagined career pathways for today's students.

Some of the careers I'm most excited about include precision farming analysis, AI-assisted nursing, and AI-assisted pedagogy (teaching) instruction.

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Agriculture has become an increasingly technical science, and we anticipate that AI-trained precision farming analysts will further revolutionize the farming industry as they maximize yields, while efficiently utilizing resources required for food production.

AI models will help analysts predict and mitigate the impact of climate change as they assist with crop selection and the allocation of resources like water and fertilizers. AI will also likely integrate with robots doing planting and harvesting, while monitoring crops in real time.

Healthcare workers often are unable to fully express the uniquely human qualities and skills that are so important in caregiving. AI can help here. Nurses of the future will have familiarity with AI tools and data analytics to interpret AI-driven insights and translate complex analyses about diagnoses and treatment plans into language that patients can understand.

This will create more room for caregivers to flex their uniquely human touch. AI doesn't just create efficiencies, it creates space for the skills only humans can bring to the table.

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AI-integrated pedagogy instructors will empower educators to integrate AI into teaching methodologies, adapting the evolving landscape of educational technology. To enhance learning and student engagement, they will merge their teaching expertise with AI capabilities.

As a result, educators will be able to craft dynamic, personalized lessons that integrate current events, cater to neuro-diverse students, and navigate compliance considerations. This also creates more space for the human elements of teaching.


2023 Day of AI - Dearborn STEM Academy (Boston)


ZDNET: What advice would you give to students interested in pursuing a career in AI or related fields?

VR: There is virtually no job or career that you could pursue today that won't be helped or enhanced by having at least a foundational knowledge of AI. I'd encourage students, educators, and even parents to check out our Careers of the Future Index.

The Index helps you explore careers that are likely to pay well and be enhanced by AI. If there's something there that excites you, dive deeper into what kind of training and education will help you prepare.

ZDNET: How do initiatives like AI Ready aim to demystify AI for the general public and encourage more widespread understanding and engagement?

VR: We have learned through our recent studies that not only is there a dire need in the workforce for AI-skilled employees, but that there is a gap and barrier to entry in computer science and STEM education. The first gap is just imagining what an AI-enabled career might look like.

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Then you need access to a learning pathway. AI Ready aims to narrow these gaps for both young and adult learners with approachable and fun programs for beginners and AI-experienced learners alike. We are proud to offer over 80 free AI and generative AI courses through the AI Ready program to reduce the entry barrier for all learners.

We have also collaborated with partners such as Code.org to offer fun coding opportunities for learners to create their own virtual music video set to hit songs from artists including Miley Cyrus and Harry Styles. These partnerships help us bring in learners who may be a bit mystified by AI.

ZDNET: Considering the global nature of technology and AI, how does Amazon's approach to AI education adapt to different cultural and regional contexts?

VR: AI has a profound impact across industries, and in particular healthcare and life sciences, media and entertainment, financial services, and education. Top use cases in education include providing students with a flexible, personalized, and interactive way to learn and immediate feedback and correction of mistakes.

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To effectively support students, we have to consider how to increase global access to AI skills training courses and resources. One way we do that is to ensure courses are available in different languages at the very least.

Additionally, through Amazon Future Engineer, we fund the development of customized curriculum that accounts for the unique cultural perspectives, interests, and experiences of underserved and historically underrepresented students.

In doing so, we can connect students to the careers of the future in meaningful ways and equip them with skills to create solutions for their communities.


Amazon Future Engineer Career Day


ZDNET: How important is the role of ethics in AI education, and how is it integrated into learning programs?

VR: AI education extends beyond technology to people, process, and culture to build awareness for the value in building diverse teams, why responsible AI matters, and the role we all have to advocate for it.

For Amazon, responsible AI is an integral part of the AI lifecycle. It needs to be present at every step, including design and development, deployment, and ongoing use. Through our skills training and education initiatives, we offer a free bias mitigation and fairness course from AWS Machine Learning University featuring over nine hours of lectures and exercises.

ZDNET: What are some of the most innovative uses of AI in education you've seen or predict will become significant?

VR: These are the early days, but there are efforts to use AI to customize lessons or practice to each student's level and needs, as well as automated grading, freeing up teacher time to provide deeper student engagement.

Tutoring is another area with potential. It's important to proceed deliberately when it comes to using these new tools to ensure they are accurate, effective and actually drive positive learning outcomes.

ZDNET: Looking beyond Amazon's initiatives, what broader changes do you believe need to happen in the education system to fully embrace and leverage the potential of AI while protecting against its pitfalls?

VR: K-12 schools across the country need to continue prioritizing opportunities for students to receive exposure to STEM, computer science, and AI fields, and explore them. Our Accelerating AI Skills Through Education survey found that only 24% of schools incorporate some form of AI skills training as part of their curriculum, despite more than 60% of educators believing that having AI skills will be necessary to obtain high-paying careers in the future.

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Looking ahead, I think we will see a greater emphasis on, and investment in, teacher training – and part of that training will include robust education on responsible AI usage. It's important that these trainings be offered to teachers broadly and not just to computer science or career and technical educators, because AI will be instrumental in almost all subject areas.

ZDNET: Any other thoughts you want to share with ZDNET's global audience?

VR: Visit AboutAmazon.com to learn more about Amazon's commitment to STEM education, and the free resources and experiences available to everyone, including students, educators, and parents through Amazon Future Engineer and our AI Ready initiative.

Final thoughts

ZDNET's editors and I would like to give a huge shoutout to Victor Reinoso for taking the time to engage in this in-depth interview. There's a lot of food for thought here. Thank you, Victor!

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What do you think? Did his recommendations give you any ideas about how to engage with AI in your educational journey, or for your school or institution? Let us know in the comments below.

You can follow my day-to-day project updates on social media. Be sure to subscribe to my weekly update newsletter, and follow me on Twitter/X at @DavidGewirtz, on Facebook at Facebook.com/DavidGewirtz, on Instagram at Instagram.com/DavidGewirtz, and on YouTube at YouTube.com/DavidGewirtzTV.

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