Why Young Women Flock to This Engineering School

Brooklyn's NYU Tandon is moving toward gender parity by making tech more welcoming to female students

Members of the Alpha Omega Epsilon sorority at NYU Tandon at a club-day event (Photo courtesy of AΩE via Instagram)

When Kyra-Lee Harry was applying to college, she set her sights on NYU Tandon School of Engineering in Brooklyn partly because it offered a major in her chosen field: technology management. She had already shown an affinity for leadership, serving as one of New York City’s youngest-ever community board members, at age 15, while attending Medgar Evers College Preparatory School. But there was another reason she chose Tandon: the abundance of other young women at the school. “Tandon has a bunch of different programs for female engineers. There’s a large network here,” said the freshman. “Some people may think that engineering is intimidating since there are so many men, but now that there are so many more females, we see other people that look like us in the classroom. We’re saying, ‘OK, you can do it, but so can we.”

NYU Tandon has a notable distinction at a time when the gender gap in technology has become a pressing issue. Tandon’s incoming freshman class is 40% female, nearly twice the percentage of the average engineering school, thanks to Tandon’s concerted effort to recruit and retain female students. Tandon is among several top tech schools–including MIT and Carnegie Mellon–where women have made major gains in enrollment, showing that it’s possible with the right approach. Having more women in the tech classroom could lead to better balance in the tech business, where companies ranging from Google to Uber have been roiled by cases of sexual harassment and gender stereotyping. Among the keys to Tandon’s success:

Start Them Early

The student pipeline for engineering colleges begins early, with the Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) classes that children encounter in grades K-12. Over the past five years, Tandon has enrolled thousands of young students in its STEMNow summer camps, where they gain exposure to college-level teachers and labs. One of the programs is a cyber-security class for young women only. Tandon’s enrollment officers meet with the kids in half-day sessions to give them a sneak preview of what engineering school is like, says Elizabeth Ensweiler, Tandon’s director of enrollment management. For high-school students, Tandon offers an internship fair and brings in representatives from major tech companies to talk about opportunities for women in the industry.

Kyra-Lee Harry, a freshman at NYU Tandon who plans to study tech management (Photo courtesy of Kyra-Lee Henry)

But the earlier, the better, says Reshma Saujani, the founder and CEO of Girls Who Code, an organization working to close the gender gap in technology. “The key to our success has been knowing where the gender gap in computing begins. It does not start when a woman lands her first job or even when she goes off to college–it starts in middle school. Poor media portrayals and a lack of role models are largely to blame,” Saujani wrote recently in Scientific American.

Show Them the Way Forward

As students in Tandon’s high-school programs start thinking about college, the school offers direction. “Let’s talk about applying to schools and what you should be looking for in an institution,” says Ensweiler. “We help them talk about personal statements and cover financial aid. What’s a FAFSA? What’s a grant vs. a scholarship? We want them to go to Tandon, but we want them to take that level of education to anywhere that they attend. It’s a pipeline for new students for us and it’s also a way to get more women into STEM.” Parents need to be informed as well, in case they’re harboring any doubts about their daughters’ prospects in a male-dominated field. “Parents are really key,” says Ensweiler. “Sometimes students won’t get into STEM because it might be something that their parents might not think is best.”

Energize Your Incoming Freshmen

Since Tandon is making a big push into technology for virtual and augmented reality, the school gets its new students involved by sending them cardboard VR headsets and NYU-designed science apps. One of the programs enables the viewer to drive a rover on Mars. Another app experience features women in a lab. “You shrink down to a microscopic level, learn about the research and then there’s a game. As you’re pressing a button, the cells are forced to grow all around you in 3-D,” says Ensweiler. The app was showcased at this year’s South by Southwest festival. Another app was launched in August, focusing on NYU’s entrepreneurial MakerSpace, including a story about working with 3-D printers to build prosthetic limbs for children. Other programs for incoming female freshmen include WEST Fest, a July preview of the school resources available to them.

A student working in the lab at NYU Tandon School of Engineering (Photo courtesy of NYU)

Keep Your Current Students Engaged

Tandon reaches out to incoming students and keeps up the communication. “For computer science and mechanical engineering, we have the list of admitted students and then we have faculty and staff make a personal call to female students. And personal letters go out to female students as well,” says Ensweiler. “We bring in the women but we also want to retain them. That’s important. We’ve been retaining women at a higher rate than men. Women right now have a higher GPA than men. We want to encourage that. We have a newsletter that goes out that talks about all of events at Tandon for women, the W2W newsletter.”

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An NYU graduate student, Meredith Mante, who’s pursuing a masters in computer science, said the school goes to great lengths to give female students a support network. “We have a lot of programs on campus” she said. “The WoMentorship program is one. We have several student clubs and other organizations that create an encouraging environment for students. The faculty is very welcoming. They want students from diverse academic programs, and the professors are very generous with their time. I think that’s something that makes me feel like I’m a valued member of the community.”

A purple sea of success: graduation day at NYU (Photo courtesy of NYU)

Provide Role Models

Tandon has increased the number of female teaching assistants. “We’ve added undergraduate TAs, as opposed to only having grad students. And many of them are female. We’ve encouraged students to work together in the labs,” said Tandon professor Phyllis Frankl. Says grade student Mante: “One of the other things that I’ve been involved with is being a teaching assistant for Intro to Computer Science. I think that’s another way that we’re making sure that when we get women accepted, that they’re having a good first-year experience. If you see a female TA teaching your intro class, it helps female students see their potential.”

If all of this sounds like special treatment, Saujani maintains that it’s necessary to correct the stubborn gender imbalance. “We need to invest in initiatives that are specifically tailored to sparking and sustain girls’ interest in the field from middle school onward through high school and into college. We cannot continue to take our eyes off gender,” she wrote. Freshman Kyra-Lee Harry says confidence is the key: “Be passionate. Be persistent. We’re seeing other women change the world and break the barriers and we can too.”

Arden Phillips is a New York-based writer and a graduate of the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University, where she received a degree in Television, Radio, and Film.