The 2021 Diversity in STEM Summit featured high-profile speakers and student research
Since 2015, the Diversity in STEM Summit at NYU Tandon has been highlighting the importance of diversity within both the school and the broader engineering workforce. This year’s edition — presented in a hybrid format involving virtual and in-person events — was no different. The multi-day Summit, whose theme was "Envisioning an Equitable Tomorrow," kicked off with a webinar, “The Path to Inclusive Excellence,” aimed at empowering attendees to effectively create an environment in which everyone is heard, acknowledged, and respected.
After Chief Inclusivity Officer Nicole Johnson, who also serves as Tandon’s Assistant Dean for Opportunity Programs, and Lisa Coleman, NYU’s Senior Vice President for Global Inclusion and Strategic Innovation made attendees welcome, guest speaker Evelynn Hammonds took to the podium. Hammonds — a Professor of African and African American Studies at Harvard, as well as the Chair of Harvard’s Department of the History of Science and the Barbara Gutmann Rosenkrantz Professor of the History of Science — explained that while opportunities for STEM careers for women and people of color have improved in recent years, much work remains to be done.
The issue, she said, is not lack of interest or ability: underrepresented groups have continually demonstrated both, as the historical record shows. (Hammonds’ own experience also provides proof: she earned a B.S. in physics from Spelman College, a B.E.E. in electrical engineering from the Georgia Institute of Technology, and an S.M. in physics from MIT. It was her isolating experience as the only Black woman studying in MIT’s physics department that led her to seek a better understanding of the phenomenon by earning a doctoral degree in the history of science at Harvard.) What she termed the “diversity problem” could be solved, she predicted, when the ways in which talent is recognized, assessed, and valued change and when all students, regardless of background, have an equal opportunity to enter and succeed in fields like engineering and technology.
“Our aim has always been to invite speakers who will share their thought-provoking ideas, inspire our students, and prove the value of diversity and collaboration by their own example,” said Johnson. “And we are honored to have Dr. Hammonds, who is, in so many ways, an exemplar of what we are trying to achieve with the Summit.”
A similarly high-wattage keynote speaker addressed the audience on the final day of the Summit: NYU Professor of Neural Science André Fenton. Those puzzled about what a neural scientist might have to say on the subject of diversity got little clarity when Fenton projected a painting of an artwork onto the screen. Most attendees immediately interpreted it as a couple passionately embracing. He explained, however, that children shown the same artwork will instead see several swimming dolphins, simply because they have not yet experienced embraces of that type. “Our prior experiences can change how and what we subsequently comprehend and learn,” he explained. Thus, if our experiences have told us repeatedly that we are not suited to study STEM topics, we begin to believe that, he said, calling upon a Buddhist trope that “What we think, we become.”
Fenton, who grew up in Guyana, has devoted much of his research to finding neuroscientific proof that we can train our brains to “forget” unhelpful or harmful information (such as when an elementary school teacher asserted you would never be good at math) and focus on more relevant material. “You can change how you process information and improve your potential,” he said. “So be thinking about your future and envisioning what you’ll accomplish. The science backs this up.”
The Summit partnered this year with the Diversity & Inclusion Research Conference (DIRC), whose aim is to bring together researchers, industry professionals, and other community leaders in order to foster increased collaboration to drive progress in workplaces, communities and society at large. Tandon Chief Inclusivity Officer Rosemary Ampuero, who also serves as the school’s Associate Dean of Student Affairs, said, “While we've hosted a number of Summits over the last few years, we were thrilled to be able to showcase our own Tandon students as presenters for the first time. There are many cohorts of students doing important work in the Inclusion, Diversity, Belonging, and Equity space, and this demonstrates how we are all able to create change. I hope we can expand the program next year!”
The student researchers included:
- Dustin Britton, whose presentation was entitled “Gendered Differences in Online University Learning of STEM Entrepreneurship During the COVID-19 Pandemic,” a longitudinal study that led to the conclusions that direct surveys can elucidate a background on gendered differences; future studies should assess and link external factors of the pandemic on gendered learning; and policies should consider a gendered effect of external factors when developing courses conducive to learning.
- Kaz Burns, whose presentation was entitled “Fostering an Inclusive Culture: Diversity & Equity Training for Undergraduate Engineering Teaching Assistants,” which elucidated the need for those instructing and mentoring Tandon’s newest students to address not just hard skills such as soldering or CAD but to touch upon issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion.
- Graphic artist Falaah Arif Khan, whose presentation was entitled “Fairness and Friends,” which explained her work with NYU’s Center for Responsible AI in educating the public about the benefits and pitfalls of artificial intelligence through reader-friendly comic books.
- Nelson James, whose presentation, “Gamify It,” explained how adding gaming elements to classroom materials, if done properly, can make learning more accessible and address opportunity gaps among underrepresented students.
Chief Inclusivity Officer Melinda Parham, who is also Tandon’s Assistant Dean for First-year Students, affirmed the success of the Summit — and how gratifying it was to be a part of it. “We know that diverse engineering teams are the ones that most effectively problem-solve, and given the major problems facing society, it’s more important than ever for engineering schools to encourage that diversity,” she said. “I’m proud that NYU Tandon is working so hard to become a more equitable, inclusive engine of opportunity, and the Summit is one important part of that.”