Which Way is WEST?

2 female students at WEST Fest 2015

The shortage of women in the STEM fields inspires so many gloomy op-eds that it would be easy to believe that there's no good news on that front. Had any of those editorial writers been at the NYU Polytechnic School of Engineering’s WEST Fest, however, they would have found plenty to celebrate.

Equal parts networking event, resource fair, Q&A session, and party, the event attracted dozens of incoming freshman women, high schoolers, and others to the Urban Future Lab--the NYU business incubator devoted to clean-energy tech--on the evening of July 23. It was the first time that many had ever been inside a business incubator, and the excitement was palpable.

It was not only the dynamic space causing the buzz, however. For some, it was their first experience of being in a room with so many other women of similar interests and talents. And, as they learned while browsing the information tables ringing the room, they’d be far from alone at the School of Engineering, which maintains a women-only dormitory floor; student chapters of groups like the Society of Women Engineers (SWE), Women in Search of Excellence (WISE), and the cleverly named STEMinists; a weeklong women’s summit, and much more.

Joanne Lee, an incoming freshman, had been thrilled to receive her acceptance letter and was even happier upon seeing how warm a welcome the school was extending. “I’m interested in mechanical engineering and construction, and while you may not think of those as traditional fields for women, I can see that this will be a wonderful, encouraging place to be,” she said.

Many of the younger women had found out about WEST Fest as participants in the school’s Summer of STEM programming. Claire Dalkie, for example, had traveled all the way from Toronto, where she attends the all-girls’ St. Clement’s School, to participate in the two-week Summer of STEM offering known as GenCyber, an immersive and supportive introduction to the interdisciplinary field of cyber security through lectures, hands-on training, and day trips to New York City technology firms. With a sister already attending NYU, it seemed a distinct possibility that she might soon be following in those footsteps. “I’ve always love technology and programming,” she explained, “and GenCyber opened my eyes to the possibility of a whole new field.” While a visit to Google headquarters had been an unquestionable highlight of her New York City sojourn thus far, the chance to visit the Urban Future Lab and participate in WEST Fest wasn’t too far behind.

The event culminated with an informative panel session that included Professor of Computer Science and Engineering Phyllis Frankl, who took visible pleasure in the attendees’ enthusiasm and who has mentored countless female students. “Professor Frankl has been a tireless guide to young women pursuing STEM studies,” Elizabeth Ensweiler, the director of enrollment management and one of the hosts of the evening, asserted. “She is one of the reasons we can so confidently tell female students that this is the place for them.”

Ensweiler and her fellow organizers had arranged for a scavenger hunt and raffle prize (an iPad Air, which was won by Jenny Ijoma, an incoming freshman who will be majoring in biomolecular science), and while it was a fun touch, attendees agreed that it wasn’t entirely necessary. When an engineering school goes to such great lengths to welcome women and introduce them to STEM, everyone wins.