On November 28, the Rubenstein Library at Duke University buzzed with energy as students from the Fall 2023 Global Inequality Research Initiative (GIRI) course on Digital Bias and Machine Learning presented their capstone projects, which ranged from the practical use of algorithms in various fields to critical analyses of their societal impacts.

A flagship program of the Samuel DuBois Cook Center on Social Equity, GIRI combines methodologies from the social sciences and humanities, offering an in-depth exploration of societal inequities. The course, part of the Cook Center’s Inequality Studies minor, focuses on themes such as reparations, genetics, neuroscience, and social determinants of health.

The Fall 2023 session on digital automation and bias, integrating machine learning and R programming for inclusive research was led by Dr. Quran Karriem, a postdoctoral associate of the Cook Center with a background in automation and knowledge system; Dr. Elizabeth Degefe, a postdoctoral associate in the Fuqua School of Business at Duke with background in utilizing AI methods to study DEI issues in the workplace; and Dr. William Darity Jr., a professor of public policy, African American studies, and economics at Duke University as well as the founding director of the Cook Center .

Each capstone project reflected the course’s interdisciplinary essence. Some students demonstrated how algorithms can be applied to understand issues in healthcare, education, and social media, while others critically examined the role of algorithms in perpetuating biases and the ethical implications of digital decision-making. The gallery walk format of the event fostered lively discussions among students, faculty, and affiliates of the Cook Center, allowing for an in-depth exchange of ideas.

The event at the Rubenstein was not only a culmination of academic efforts but also a vibrant testament to the integration of technology, society, and ethics in higher education. One project on the latter topic came from graduate students Thomas Crowe-Allbritton, a Master of Public Policy Candidate, and Goharik Tigranyan, a Master of International Development Policy Candidate, whose work on digital bias in education emphasized the value of diverse perspectives in course discussions. Informed by Crowe-Allbritton’s experience as a high school teacher and Tigranyan’s experience in education policy, their presentation explored the integration of new technologies in education and potential disparities.

Thomas Crowe-Allbritton and Goharik Tigranyan

Thomas Crowe-Allbritton and Goharik Tigranyan

The GIRI course is also available to undergraduates, such as Madi McMichael. Her journey with the Inequality Studies minor began in her freshman year after discovering it through social media. She appreciated the minor’s structure, which includes history-based courses, aiding her in navigating complex questions of inequality, a crucial element in her engagement with GIRI.

While she was initially apprehensive about the digital bias theme, McMichael found her footing through community involvement and the course’s comprehensive approach. “At first, the Digital Bias topic intimidated me because I’m not a computer science person, and it was something I had never considered before,” said McMichael. “However, conceptualizing a project around digital bias through an equity lens and being able to collaborate with my peers alleviates the initial uncertainty.

McMichael’s research paper, influenced by her work with the Community Empowerment Fund, examined how algorithms affect housing, highlighting issues like tenant screening services. McMichael’s exploration into the world of algorithms led to surprising discoveries about inherent biases in “factual” sources.

While she may pursue a career in a seemingly unrelated field, McMichael is confident that the knowledge and skills she has gained through the GIRI course will nevertheless help guide her path.

“I think wherever I do go, if I end up in medicine, I think the stuff I have learned from the minor will inform the way I want to treat patients,” McMichael said, “and how I want to operate within the medical system to look out for those blind spots.”

For more about the GIRI program, including the upcoming Spring 2024 course, be sure to view the Cook Center’s website.