You can get the ingredients for a meal via curbside pickup—why not the ingredients for a great STEM learning experience?

Elementary school student using microcontrollers called micro:bit to program simple visual blocks of code

An elementary school student works remotely in one of Tandon's K12 STEM programs using microcontrollers called micro:bit, which can be programmed using simple visual block coding.

As director of NYU Tandon’s Center for K12 Education, Ben Esner and his team have had to make some changes during the COVID-19 crisis —  transitioning in-person activities to virtual ones, for example, and getting needed equipment like microcontrollers to young participants in any way possible, including plans for summer curbside pickup. 

Some things haven’t changed, however: namely, his focus on delivering high-quality  Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math programming that aligns with Tandon’s areas of research excellence to K-12 students from New York City and beyond. 

On-line or off, one of the Center’s most popular programs has long been Creativity in Engineering, Science, and Technology (CrEST), which provides an introduction to circuitry, electronics, mechanical systems, physical computing, and robotics (a burgeoning area of excellence at Tandon). Over the last few months, dozens of teens from the High School for Construction Trades, Engineering and Architecture; Midwood High; Queens Technical; the Transit Tech Career and Technical Education High School; and Urban Assembly Gateway underwent online training that will allow them to fan out across the city — virtually — this summer to guide middle school students in experiments, group projects, and other activities. (Last summer’s CrEST participants culminated the program by going head-to-head in a Shark Tank-like showcase that proved they had absorbed the spirit of entrepreneurship along with new tech skills.) 

Other popular programs that will be returning in remote format this coming summer include Applied Research Innovations in Science and Engineering (ARISE), which gives its high school participants an intensive, five-week lab-based research experience as well as coursework that covers scientific ethics,college-level writing, and other topics important for those aspiring to become scientists and engineers; Computer Science for Cyber Security (CS4CS), which, like Tandon’s award-winning cyber programs seeks to help ameliorate the global shortage of professionals in that field; Sounds of New York City (SONYC), which allows middle-schoolers to help engineer cyber-physical systems to NYC’s noise pollution problem and make it more livable; and Innovation, Entrepreneurship and the Science of Smart Cities (ieSoSC), in which students learn about the technologies making urban areas cleaner, safer, and better connected.


A pilot takes off

This year, the Center took its long-running Science of Smart Cities program to even younger students, piloting a program aimed at fourth- and fifth-grade students. The new initiative kicked off at St. Catherine of Genoa ~ St. Thérèse of Lisieux, a parochial school in the Brooklyn neighborhood of East Flatbush. Teachers and students there were mailed easy-to-use microcontrollers called micro:bit, which could be programmed using simple visual block coding, and then guided through a curriculum introducing basic engineering concepts. 

Remote teacher training is continuing throughout the summer and Esner hopes that in-person work with larger numbers of New York City elementary school students might commence in the fall.  

Burlyn Andall-Blake — a junior at NYU Tandon who majors in computer science and minors in American Sign Language and Data Science; a member of the National Society of Black Engineers, Girls Who Code, and the Society of Women Engineers; and the recipient of a string of honors such as the Google Black Excellence Award — updated the curriculum handbook to make it suitable for younger students and served as a guide and assistant to the teachers trying out the lessons. “Kids that age are so creative, and they asked really great questions,” she says. “I think they’re getting a solid head start  in understanding what STEM learning is all about.”

Esner credits Andall-Blake and her co-instructor Abhijeet Rajesh Sant, a graduate student at NYU Courant, for skillfully reworking the curriculum and says the pilot would not have been such a success without their efforts.


A couple with a cause

Esner points out, as well, that the pilot might never have happened without alum Vince DeCaprio, who earned his advanced degrees in bioengineering in Brooklyn before going on to a long career in the medical device industry, and his wife, Mary Lou. 

The two generously funded the launch of the initiative, which happened to perfectly align with their interests. “We focus our giving on areas we love and in which we can make a difference,” they say, “and STEM education for the young is definitely one of those areas.”

Mary Lou explains that she has an interesting perspective on the topic: she began her professional career as a chemist, regularly volunteered at her children’s school, and later earned a degree in education and became a Science and Math teacher herself. “Although elementary school educators really understand pedagogy and strategies for engagement, they often lack training in the science subjects that they’re being asked to teach, let alone STEM,” she says. “A program like the one Ben has piloted can be a guiding launchpad for them, as well as for the kids.”

As science enthusiasts themselves, the DeCaprios understand that it’s best to “hook”  students as early as possible. “They have a natural enthusiasm about learning new things during the elementary school years and are eager to dive in and experiment,” they say. (It doesn’t hurt that micro:bits are colorful, engaging, and just plain fun to work with.)

The Center’s Smart-City initiatives have been a resounding success at the middle and high school levels, and the couple was excited about spearheading a new, but very natural, extension, building upon what Esner and his staff had developed over the previous years.

“Engineering students are always hearing how important it is to use technology wisely and to consider the implications of anything they build,” the DeCaprios say. “But this program gets the idea across without a lot of preaching; if you’re envisioning a model city of the future, you’ll want to consider its inhabitants and engineer features with human needs and sustainability in mind, not just in order to create something cool simply because you can.” 

If supporting STEM education is a natural for the pair, so is doing it at NYU Tandon. “I graduated back when the school was known as Poly,” Vince says, “but throughout the merger with NYU and the name changes, I’ve followed its progress, and it’s been very impressive; from the launch of the Center for K12 STEM Education to the strides being made in getting more women and other underrepresented groups involved, it’s been a pleasure to witness.”