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Engineering opportunity: It’s in the research

Multicultural illustration of people with the words "Ensuring Access to Opportunity" in the middle.

This article originally appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

The social unrest that has marked much of 2020 highlights an uncomfortable truth: while the U.S. has long thought of itself as a land of opportunity, bias still pervades many of our systems and sectors, such as healthcare, where disparities have meant that COVID-19 disproportionately affects low-income neighborhoods.

Even higher education—the very system meant to promote social and economic advancement—has not been immune, and schools across the nation are now working diligently to become more equitable, inclusive engines of opportunity for all. And while that work must continue, it’s not enough—especially at the nation’s engineering schools, which are creating next-generation technology that will increasingly define access to housing, healthcare, employment, transportation, and more. 

The American Dream requires varied, innovative, and evolving pathways 

The nation looked very different back in 1854, when the small polytechnic institute that was the precursor to the NYU Tandon School of Engineering opened its doors. Then, the ambitious first-generation Americans who flocked to the school hailed from places like Italy, Germany, Poland, and Russia, and used their engineering education as a stepping stone to the middle class and beyond. It’s probably no coincidence that it was an alum, John Truslow Adams (1898), who first coined the phrase “the American Dream,” which he saw as a place where “each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.”

New generations of Pell-eligible students who are, in many cases, the first in their immediate families to attend college, continue to arrive at our doors and be welcomed. Our Inclusion @ Tandon Committee has created a far-reaching strategy that incorporates K-12 efforts and career pipeline initiatives; establishes an atmosphere of support for each and every student at Tandon; and attracts a diverse faculty eager to serve as mentors. That’s important, because solving the world’s problems requires a diversity of perspectives, lived experiences, and intellectual capital, and that can only happen in a diverse, vibrant environment, where people from different backgrounds collaborate. 

We are expanding the STEM pipeline from K-12  to far beyond the mortarboard

Often, conversation about building a pipeline into education starts, as it should, with the youngest aspiring scientists, technologists, and engineers, as happens at Tandon’s Center for K12 STEM Education. But what about creating opportunities for advancement for those who are already in the workforce? Could the process be opened to those from non-traditional backgrounds? That’s the goal of the Bridge to Tandon initiative, a novel distance-learning program designed to provide those who have little background in science or engineering with the tools they need to apply for master’s degree programs in highly technical fields like bioinformatics, cybersecurity, data science, and robotics. It could also mean helping companies upskill their existing workforce—those already in the pipeline—by offering microcredentials or other learning opportunities. 

Opportunity-centered tech is key to a more equitable and diverse future

As research institutions, engineering schools are also perfectly positioned to create next-generation technology that accounts for inherent bias, measures disparities, increases accessibility for the differently-abled, and opens world-changing possibilities in sometimes unexpected ways. 

  • Through the COVID-19 pandemic, telemedicine has become a necessary entry point into the process of diagnosis, triage and treatment. With racial and ethnic disparities in health care well documented with respect to risk of infection and in-hospital outcomes, Rumi Chunara, an assistant professor in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering at NYU Tandon,  and in the Department of Biostatistics at NYU School of Global Public Health, saw the need to assess disparities for those who accessed care for the virus via telemedicine. Discovering that telemedicine access disparities reflected those of in-person healthcare access, she and her colleagues hope that their work can be used to inform tool design and systemic efforts to promote digital health equity.   
  • Connected Cities with Smart Transportation (C2SMART) is a Tier 1 University Transportation research center whose goals include making transportation more accessible and equitable. The center has collaborated with the New York City MTA’s  Accessible Station Lab for subways, created an on-demand tool to support senior access to mobility, and researched how women may be paying a premium for transportation in urban environments, among other projects.  
  • Since 2016, Tandon students, with the support of the NYU Ability Project, have been making custom, 3D-printed orthotics for young patients with cerebral palsy—an especially important initiative since insurance companies often refuse to pay to replace outgrown braces in a timely way.
  • With programs like the Africa Multi-City Challenge, a partnership with the UN Development Programme, researchers at The Governance Lab (The GovLab), are studying ways of using technology to increase citizen influence on government processes and promote collaboration. 
  • The Center for Responsible AI is building open-source tools and frameworks for equitable data-sharing, more transparent algorithmic decision-making systems, and more—with an eye towards a future in which responsible AI is the only kind accepted by society.  
  • Industry Assistant Professor Reginé Gilbert literally wrote the book on accessible design: she’s the author of Inclusive Design for a Digital World: Designing with Accessibility in Mind, a comprehensive volume that explores the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, best practices for web development, and more.
  • Wireless communications researchers are seeking ways to provide greater capability and functionality to mobile device users; making a multi-pronged effort to educate the next generation of machine learning and wireless professionals at the K-12, undergraduate, and graduate levels; and broadening participation of under-represented minority groups.
  • Yury Dvorkin, an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering, is working to increase the resiliency of the power grid, because, as he’s discovered, outages all too often disproportionately affect already-vulnerable populations.

“As an engineering school, we are in the rare position of being able to not only provide an education to our students—regardless of where they come from, their ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation or socioeconomic background—but to also use our research prowess to create opportunity for all people,” Dean Jelena Kovačević explains.  “Developing technology that contributes to society in some way has always been a major part of our ethos, and among the biggest contributions we can make going forward is to create systems and devices that promote equity and open doors for all. In other words, we want to engineer opportunity in every way possible.”