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Using AI for Social Good: Helping Young People Set Goals, Finish Their Education, and Start Careers

by Making Waves Education Foundation

Making Waves Education Foundation » News Stories » Using AI for Social Good: Helping Young People Set Goals, Finish Their Education, and Start Careers

National recognition

Update as of April 16: Making Waves earned the grand prize in the ASU+GSV Summit’s Education Innovation Showcase’s idea category! The prize package comes with $5,000 and a $5,000 grant from Educating All Learners Alliance to support implementation. Additional support includes consulting from leading education and technology experts.

Five people holding giant check from ASU+GSV made out to Making Waves for $5000
Alton B. Nelson, Jr. (left) and Jon Siapno (third from left) receive the grand prize check.

An AI copilot for education and employment  

For over three decades, Making Waves has partnered with San Francisco Bay Area students from low-income backgrounds to help them reach their education, career, and life goals.

Making Waves combines the impact of two nonprofits: Making Waves Academy enrolls students in 5th through 12th grade and Making Waves Education Foundation leads college and career success programming.

Yet many more students across the Bay Area, California, and the U.S. do not have access to this type of support from middle school through college and career – or even to ask questions and receive reminders about the possibilities along their career and college journeys.

According to a recent survey, only 13% of Gen Z teens reported feeling prepared to make a decision about their future.

“This survey is sobering,” said Jon Siapno, the VP of product innovation at Making Waves Education Foundation, who brings content expertise from his former role as the director of college and career counseling at Making Waves Academy. 

“When Gen Z is asked, ‘Do you feel lost?’ 87% say ‘yes.’ We have one job: to lower that number,” shared Siapno.

Over the past year and a half, Siapno has been developing a product that provides education and employment coaching for young people through text message.

“All someone has to do is visit our website, enter their date of birth and their phone number, click submit, and within seconds they’ll receive a welcome text,” shared Siapno. 

“We’ll answer any questions they have, and continue to text them regularly with reminders, upcoming deadlines, and nudges aligned to their interests.” 

The product is designed as an always-on copilot for young people, from their first year of high school all the way through the start of their career. 

For example, if a student wants to become a phlebotomist or a UX/UI designer, Making Waves will recommend affordable, related programs. While continuing their education, they’ll receive advice on how to deal with self-doubt, manage their time well, and study effectively to successfully finish their program. To help them land a job and start their career, the tool will provide tips on enhancing their skills, expanding their professional network, and gaining practical experience.

“With each generation of students, we need to find ways to meet them where they’re at and support their needs,” shared Patrick O’Donnell, CEO of Making Waves Education Foundation.

“Gen Z is a generation that has grown up with access to technology, which is why Making Waves is using generative AI to provide education and employment coaching,” shared O’Donnell.

While it’s free for anyone in sign up, O’Donnell shared that the aim is to partner with schools to complement their in-person college and career counseling and to make sure more students from low-income backgrounds have guidance to set goals, finish their education, and start a career – anytime, anywhere. 

“We’re expanding access to information and providing personalized guidance, at scale,” O’Donnell shared.

“We’re specifically focused on serving underrepresented and underserved students. The content we’re sharing is grounded in the experience and needs of this population of students,” O’Donnell said.

“And we’re meeting students where they are, which is on their phones. We have created a really low barrier to entry. All they need to do is text,” he added. 

Rather than focus on a single transition point, Siapno shared that people can start using the copilot as young as 13 years old and continue the conversations into their first careers. Meant for all young people, there’s no specific jump-in point – and as always, anyone can send unlimited messages for free. 

“The initial idea behind this AI tool began at Making Waves Academy, a public charter school, before ChatGPT went mainstream,” shared Alton B. Nelson, Jr., CEO of Making Waves Academy. “Its guidance is based on a successful school-based model where students are invited to develop their own self-conception and identity that feeds into their college and career decisions.”

Making Waves knows that one-on-one conversation with students is extremely effective.

Both Making Waves Academy’s college and career counseling for high school students and Making Waves Education Foundation’s college, career, and financial coaching for college students have strong outcomes in terms of graduation rates and employment rates. 

Making Waves is scaling that conversational coaching approach so many more students can have access to information and make informed decisions. 

“I see our AI tool as being a young person’s companion through major life milestones,” said Aiyana Mourtos, chief program officer. “The more conversations users have, the better our adaptive technology gets at providing them timely, personalized information to help them achieve their goals.” 

With the use of AI, thousands more students can be reached compared to an exclusive person-to-person model. The use of technology also helps free up time for counselors to provide more intensive person-to-person support.  

“We’ve seen that one conversation can ultimately change the trajectory of a young person’s life,” said Mourtos. “A one-on-one conversation is one of the most powerful ways to help a young person make choices that get them closer to who they want to be. This tool is aiming to take that to scale.”

“While I don’t believe robots are going to take over the world and replace all human connection, this tool can serve as a guide and allow those human connections to be even more intentional.”  

This April, Siapno and Nelson are set to join the stage in San Diego at the ASU + GSV Summit’s Education Innovation Showcase, which highlights education leaders advancing innovation in their community and fostering meaningful change at the systems level.

With Making Waves being named a top five finalist in the idea category, Siapno and Nelson are pitching this innovation to potential partners and supporters. 

“The education sector often faces criticism for being slow to move. We are committed to ensuring that our community is not left behind, trapped in yet another opportunity gap,” Siapno shared.

“While our product is currently being used in the Bay Area, we are getting interest from rural school districts and small school districts on the West Coast who don’t have the same economies of scale as larger school systems.” 

Grand prize winner

Update as of April 16: Making Waves earned the grand prize in the ASU+GSV Summit’s Education Innovation Showcase’s idea category! The prize package comes with $5,000 and a $5,000 grant from Educating All Learners Alliance to support implementation. Additional support includes consulting from leading education and technology experts.

Alton and Jon on stage presenting with photo of mountain on slide in background
Jon Siapno (left) and Alton B. Nelson, Jr. (right) presenting on stage at the Education Innovation Showcase.

“We see a time when every young person feels connected to their purpose, no matter the path they choose,” Siapno shared.

“But we cannot do it alone. We’re asking for deliberate partnerships to make this happen.”  

For school leaders

If you are a school or district leader, contact Jon Siapno at jsiapno@making-waves.org to introduce Making Waves to your community.

For donors

We are doing a one million dollar raise for this project. Contact Allison Holton at aholton@making-waves.org to make a philanthropic investment.

About Making Waves Education Foundation

At Making Waves, we are committed to educational equity. Making Waves Education Foundation is a Bay Area nonprofit that supports Making Waves Academy – a public charter school with more than 1,100 5th through 12th grade students – and leads college and career programming with more than 430 college students.​

Knowing the opportunities that come with a college degree, we partner with historically underrepresented and underserved students to help make college affordable and graduation attainable. Centering the journeys of our students, our personalized approach includes college and career coaching, scholarships, and financial planning.​

Our alumni network includes more than 730 college graduates, who earn their degrees and land jobs at more than twice the rate of their first-generation, low-income peers, with 85% graduating debt-free.

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