Arts & Sciences

Professor receives National Security Agency funding for STARTALK Chinese language and culture camp

Dr. Jen-Li Ko

Dr. Jen-Li Ko, teaching assistant professor of languages, literatures and cultures in the Klingler College of Arts and Sciences, has received a grant worth $219,851 from the National Security Agency to organize and host the STARTALK Summer Chinese Camp, a three-week, in-person Chinese language and culture camp, in summer 2024.

The camp will be themed “Chinese Language Learning and Artificial Intelligence” and is open to 30 participants, grades seven through college at intermediate or advanced Chinese levels, with a focus on those in the greater Milwaukee area. Participants will learn Chinese language and culture through cuisines, arts, and technology, as well as basic techniques and applications of artificial intelligence within the Mandarin-speaking world.

“This intensive program is designed to move students forward in their Chinese language proficiency development,” Ko said. “Integrating AI studies in Chinese language learning is a fruitful endeavor, as studying AI can help students better understand the underlying principles of language processing, which in turn can deepen their understanding of language learning and inform new approaches to learning. We will construct a student-centered environment for participants to learn about language and culture related to cuisine, reflect on the debates of AI applications, and gain appreciation of Chinese arts.”

Through theme-based learning, students will gain an appreciation and understanding of how to transform their newly acquired linguistic skills into analytic strategies using machine learning techniques and language data processing skills. Topics combining Chinese learning and AI include machine learning, the building of apps to analyze larger data in Mandarin Chinese, applications of AI in China, and challenges and ethical issues of AI.

“Building upon the success of our first STARTALK camp this past summer, I am thrilled that Dr. Ko has been awarded funds from the National Security Agency to continue the camp next summer,” said Dr. Heidi Bostic, dean of the Klingler College of Arts and Sciences. “Dr. Ko and her colleagues have collaborated on an innovative language education program, which will increase the diversity of students interested in Chinese language and computer science. This dual focus makes the camp distinctive and extra appealing to students.”

Dr. Eugenia Afinoguenova, chair and professor of Spanish, is a co-principal investigator on the award. Dr. Lee Za Ong, assistant professor of counselor education and counseling psychology in the College of Education, and Chris Larkee, visualization technology specialist in the Opus College of Engineering’s Visualization Lab, are also on the award team.

This is the second year of Marquette’s STARTALK Summer Chinese Camp, which began in summer 2023 from a previous $195,000 NSA award. It was the first Chinese language camp in Wisconsin and was open to students in high school and college. The theme was “Computer Science Enhanced Chinese Language Learning,” and participants learned Chinese not only though virtually “visiting” three Mandarin-speaking areas and a wide range of cultural activities, but also by studying computer science topics.

STARTALK is a federal grant program managed and funded by the National Security Agency. STARTALK grants fund innovative programs with strong language learning outcomes for K-16 students in support of the STARTALK goals. STARTALK grants currently support programs offered in the following critical need languages: Arabic, Chinese, Korean, Persian and Russian.