Brains and ‘Bytes’: FLC and Intel Spearhead First AI Program in Sacramento Region

Folsom Lake College Artificial Intelligence (AI) Program

Armand Link knew he needed to upskill to remain competitive in the tech industry, but after losing his job, he wasn’t sure where to turn. That’s when he discovered the brand-new artificial intelligence classes at Folsom Lake College — the only AI program of all two- and four-year schools in the Sacramento region — and he decided to “jump in.”

“As a Black queer individual, it’s been super important having access through Folsom Lake College, which has opened doors for me,” says Link.  “I’m incredibly thankful.”

He says his classes gave him a wide overview of AI and instilled the hands-on, high-tech skills necessary to tackle industry challenges. Says Link, “Nothing could have prepared me for how enriching the course material has been. 

“Honestly, it was eye-opening and life-changing.”

Now, after receiving his computer information science degree from FLC, Link is on his way to earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Columbia University in New York. He intends to follow his newfound passions in AI ethics and natural language processing. 

“The program couldn’t have been more timely for my academic aims and interests,” says Link, who credits FLC’s welcoming and rigorous classes for upgrading his skills. 

According to Dean of Instruction, Math, Science, and Engineering Gregory McCormac, the impetus to start the AI program came in 2019. Intel Corporation asked FLC to team up and join their “AI for Workforce Program” to deploy much-needed career education for the region.

“At the undergraduate level, and definitely at the lower division level, there were no options out there to study AI,” says McCormac. With AI revolutionizing processes across industries and the demand for skilled professionals on the rise, it was time to offer more opportunities to the region’s students. He says, “Our faculty have done a great job developing curriculum, and students are responding by enrolling, so we’re happy.”

The college’s stackable AI certificate is “on the verge of approval” in the Chancellor’s office and will be official shortly. An entire AI associate degree will follow soon afterward. Says the dean, “Professor Dr. Suha Al Juboori has been doing a great job putting together a coursework package that positions students very well to compete in the job market after graduation.”

Juboori said teaming up with Intel was only natural.

“We are the closest college to Intel,” says the CIS instructor, who points out that the corporation’s Folsom headquarters is just four miles away from FLC’s campus. She says, “We are the first to offer this program, and I’m happy because there is a huge need for it in our area. The type of jobs related to AI is only increasing.”

Professionals with AI skills are in demand across health care, agriculture, aerospace, engineering, computer science, tech, and more. According to the Centers of Excellence (COE), AI careers are projected to surge in the Greater Sacramento region by 12 percent over the next five years, adding more than 1100 jobs. 

So, it’s no wonder FLC’s introductory AI course is always full. Plus, since classes are online, it allows greater flexibility for learners across the district and beyond.

“Our program is accessible not only to our local college site but also regionally or even state-wide,” says McCormac, who points out that any California resident can easily enroll. 

The college provides virtual machines, giving students access to the proper equipment wherever they are — the equivalent of a computer lab in the cloud. “We virtualized everything for our online environments,” says McCormac. “If there’s a good thing that came out of COVID … with more folks taking online classes, that became a practice at our institution.”

Strong Workforce support has been essential in providing those virtual computers. The funding also helps with curriculum development and further training for faculty to get up to speed on the latest industry practices.

“Folsom Lake has been a great partner,” says Intel Corporation AI Education Manager Christina Ortiz. Not only is the college the first in the region to offer an AI program, but she also says that “FLC was the first college in California to join our AI for Workforce Program. … They are really providing a service for our communities and preparing workers for careers.”

Intel’s AI for Workforce Program is an educational partnership between the corporation and community colleges nationwide, now comprising 10 colleges across the state and more than 80 two-year schools nationwide. Intel provides over 500 hours of AI content, professional training for faculty, and implementation guidance. 

“AI skills are one of the most sought-after for jobs in our digital economy, but there’s a big gap right now, and there are not a lot of programs offering AI content,” says Ortiz. “At Intel, we saw that need, and we saw that community colleges are already our nation’s go-to workforce development entity, so we said, ‘Let’s partner with community colleges.’ … It’s been very rewarding.”

Ortiz says that the partnership with FLC has been robust from the start. While the corporation helped the college get its classes off the ground, FLC, as one of the first schools to participate, also helped Intel shape its AI for Workforce Program, which the school continues to do to this day. FLC is a torchbearer, and Ortiz is thrilled that the school will provide a cutting-edge certificate to launch much-needed professionals into the workforce.

“The great thing about the certificate is that learners can get through it quickly,” says Ortiz. From incumbent workers hungry for the latest technology to upskill their careers to those in different sectors looking for a change, “they can get that certificate in a few semesters, and now, they’re right at the top of the hiring pool for having that latest skill.”

Plans for the AI program include exploring possible internships with Intel, and the industry partner has also expressed openness to hiring students in the future. The next step is articulating the college’s up-and-coming AI degree with four-year institutions so learners can seamlessly transfer to earn a bachelor’s and beyond. As grateful FLC grad Link shares, the program gives students like him an essential foundation to reboot careers.

“All the skills from the program are directly applicable to any internship or job,” says the former Folsom falcon. And those workforce skills are just in time. As Link says, “AI and machine learning are here to stay.”  


July 2023