NYU student helping young community members prototype

CrEST Pairs Local High Schoolers with NYU Tandon Students for Mentoring.

Ben Esner, director of NYU’s Center for K12 STEM, has reason to feel fortunate: “I like to say that we have a competitive advantage over other people who do this,” he says. “We have a whole building full of experts!” The building in question is NYU Tandon School of Engineering in downtown Brooklyn, where graduate and undergraduate students have, for the past five years, served as mentors and teachers for groups of high schoolers through the Center’s innovative program CrEST: Creativity in Engineering, Science, and Technology.

“With CrEST, we work to connect kids in the community with what is actually going on at Tandon,” Esner explains. “We’re an applied school, so what you are teaching is connected to those applications and becomes very concrete.” In line with CrEST’s inquiry-based curriculum, students are given the opportunity to use the real tools of applied engineering and computer science, including microcontrollers, sensors, and high-end rapid prototyping equipment. “This program was really designed around the idea of connecting to things that engineers and technologists actually do,” Esner says. “We hope to show them that these applications are vehicles for creative expression.”

Photo: CrEST students holding up prototyping materials

Tandon Works to Make STEM Take Root in the Community

CrEST students receive a total of 60 hours of training at Tandon under the supervision, for the past two years, of teacher Sharanya Gudepu— soon to graduate with her Masters in Electronics and Computer Engineering —and a team of graduate and undergraduate student instructors from departments as diverse as Digital Media, Biology, and Nursing. The group meets on Saturdays and the occasional Sunday for a deep dive into robotics, physical computing, electronics, circuitry, and other STEM fields. Recently, their projects were showcased at Tandon’s 2017 Research Expo, alongside the work of students from the engineering school itself. For the Expo, each group of three or four high schoolers created something that could contribute to the smart home of the future: an air pollution sensor that can detect contaminants and wirelessly alert its user; a robotic arm that can make a cup of tea; a smart pet home that will detect the presence of a dog and dispense food into a bowl; a temperature sensor that will tell you when your bath is ready. “The idea is to build something real, interactive, and creative which is going to make your life easy,” Gudepu explains.

A buzz of young voices filled a Tandon classroom as the focused and engaged high schoolers prepared for the Expo, problem-solving as they brought their ideas to life. “It’s been really interesting,” says a Midwood High School sophomore named Christal, gesturing at a breadboard covered in circuits she’s just built. “I didn’t know anything about circuits when I started here. I went from knowing nothing to doing this!” Nathan, also a sophomore at Midwood, adds, “I enjoy being able to build something with my own two hands and have it do what I expect it to do.” For Damion, a senior who wants to pursue a career in engineering, CrEST has been a rewarding challenge: “Even though it’s getting harder and harder,” he says, “it’s still worth it because we’re learning something for our future profession.”

It’s a markedly diverse bunch, ranging from freshmen to seniors and coming from a variety of backgrounds: According to the Center, 81 percent of CrEST students are from low income families, 50 percent are female, and 90 percent are ethnic and racial minorities. “You can talk all you want about racial, ethnic, and gender equity and diversity in STEM, and school stem opportunity,” Esner says. “But talk is cheap - you’ve got to do. We’re the doing part.”

Photo: CrEST students building a fan


Sophomores Angie, Lin Lin, and Ersat have chosen to build a fan. Lin Lin is in charge of the coding, which controls the fan’s speed, and Angie, with Ersat’s help, is designing the fan’s housing—which will be fabricated by a 3D printer—using a program called Tinkercad. “Right now we’re trying to build the actual structure of it and then cover it so nobody knows how it’s moving,” Ersat explains. “Good teamwork right here!” She says that her brother, a computer engineer, was one of her inspirations for joining CrEST. “I was perked from the beginning,” she says. “It’s so cool how he can make robots, and I thought, why don’t I try? Now it’s something we can bond over.”

The division of labor not only helps the teams work more efficiently, explains co-lead teacher and Masters student in computer engineering Manoj Bandri. It helps students pick up organizational skills as well. “They aren’t just learning engineering, they’re learning learn life skills and people skills,” Bandri says. At the Expo, he adds, where investors, corporate recruiters, and members of the general public engage kids in discussion of their work, they can get a glimpse of the professional side of STEM work too.

The Machine That Gives Ideas Shape and Substance

Once a team has their code and circuits working and their Tinkercad designs complete, they are ready for Tandon’s MakerSpace. Full of natural light and the whirr of 3D printers and other rapid prototyping equipment, the space, which opened this past fall, is where students begin the process of testing their products. “This was the first time I’d seen a 3D printer in motion,” says Vlad, a sophomore. “Some of them are as big as cars!” his teammate, Julie, chimes in.

Lauren and Josephine, both juniors, described the bright pink round taking shape inside one boxy printer as “a model of a cookie.” Eventually, the plastic housing would hold motion-detecting ping sensors, and LEDs for a motion-activated nightlight they were making. “We’re doing a test to see if all of the LEDs fit inside the model, so it’s not the actual product,” Lauren explains. “We thought of this idea because most people need nightlights when they sleep. Say in the middle of the night you want to get a glass of water - you would walk by and the light would turn on.”

Seniors Daniel and Gurjeet and junior Paramjeet were working on a model car. “It’s very impressive,” says Bandri. “The car can basically move on its own, make decisions on its own.” So far, the team has finished the wheels. Paramjeet demonstrates how the wheel will stop turning and bring the car to a halt when an object—for testing purposes his hand—is detected a predetermined distance away.

Mohammed, a graduate of CrEST who is now a senior, is advising another team that’s test-printing a product they call “Goof Ball,” a variation of a hot potato game. “I’m here because these are my friends,” he says, “and it’s a nice space, and I like working with the 3D printers.” Mohammed explains that he always liked being creative and building things—he’s the captain of the robotics team at school— but with access to Tandon’s resources he was able to take his interests to a new level. “Here I took off,” he says.

Photo: NYU students and CrEST students discussing a project together

CrEST’s Model for Paying It Forward

Mohammed would like to give others the same experience. “Maybe I can be a CrEST teacher one day!” he says. If he gets his wish, Mohammed would not be the first to go full circle: being a CrEST high school student, studying Engineering at NYU Tandon, teaching CrEST himself. He has a head start: Mohammed taught middle schoolers over the summer, and has since visited some of his former students, who’ve begged him to come back and teach again. “It was a good bonding moment,” he reflects.

Certainly, the teachers derive a benefit as well. “I feel a responsibility to give back because I’ve been given so much,” Tandon’s Sharanya Gudepu says. Besides leadership, she adds, teaching and mentoring for CrEST brings her experience in team management, something that she can take into a professional career. “We like to engage our own experts,” Esner adds. “And they in turn can have a job sharing their passion for their studies with kids who don’t get access to that a lot.” Gudepu says that she will certainly continue to seek opportunities to teach and mentor young students in STEM after she graduates. “I believe in science diplomacy, and I think it’s high time for us to realize how we’re exhausting all the natural resources and have to harness our knowledge in different ways. Giving that inclination at the high school level is very good.”

Another CrEST veteran returning to help the group prepare for the Expo is a junior named Eugene. “It helps my own work and understanding of the material, and makes me want to go into engineering more than I already had,” he says of assisting his peers. “I also learn new things from everyone else and when I have to do research to answer their questions.”

Some CrEST students also get the opportunity to become ambassadors of applied science and engineering: One of the program’s efforts is the creation of a multigenerational community of teachers and learners in STEM. A new initiative, as of last summer, recruits a handful of CrEST’s high school student alumni to teach a series of 30-hour workshops to middle school students. “All the same benefits that our undergrads and grads get out of teaching the program the high school kids get out of it too,” explains Esner. “They get professional experience, they mentor younger kids, they reinforce their learning. And because they’re close in age, there’s the whole notion of being able to picture yourself as an engineer or scientist, which is quite important to getting kids not only engaged in these fields but really believing they can do it.”

The effect on CrEST’s 120 or so graduates has been notable: “They still call me,” Gudepu recalls of her previous class. “They’re still pitching ideas, they come and work on projects.”

CrEST’s projects for the Expo are undeniably ambitious, but just as important, Gudepu says, is what students learn about new and creative ways to approach problems, whether in society or in their own work: “Through these projects the students get the chance to think differently. Engineering is all about experimenting. At the end of the day, if we can give them confidence to experiment I think our goal is reached.”