Left image: three smiling people (one adult man, two teenage girls) Right image: nine teenage girls sit around a table

Celebrating Ten Years of the GSTEM Program

By Sarah Ward

June 24, 2024

For students in NYU’s GSTEM program, the Annual Symposium is the culmination of six weeks of hard work. Each summer, forty high school juniors arrive at the university and commit to a rigorous program of coursework and study. The students are paired with a university mentor—typically an NYU professor or postdoc—to pursue an independent research project in the sciences. After weeks of effort and collaboration, students present their findings at the GSTEM Annual Symposium each August, where recent topics have included Buzz: The AI Powered Insect-Detection Tool and Deep Neural Nets for Imaging Systems.

In addition to a scientific conference, the GSTEM Annual Symposium is also the last day of a summer camp—which is the best way to describe the energy in the room. The students share embraces and inside jokes. They weave through the Kimmel Center auditorium signing one another’s tee shirts, promising to stay in touch on social media. The celebratory atmosphere is heightened by the fact that this particular symposium—in August of 2023—is a birthday party in honor of GSTEM’s tenth anniversary.

Since the GSTEM program began over a decade ago, it has made it its mission to create a positive, supportive environment for students. “The GSTEM goal has always been to raise representation in STEM careers through a program of mentorship and community,” says Matthew Leingang, Clinical Associate Professor of Mathematics and Faculty Director of GSTEM. The community has continued to grow with each new class. “Every year, I hear from a few GSTEM alums who are now in college,” says Program Director Catherine Tissot, “They are still pursuing STEM and oftentimes their major was influenced by the science they were exposed to during GSTEM.  It’s incredibly rewarding to hear the lasting impact the program has.”

GSTEM was initially established through a seed grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, which specified that the program would serve students from New York City. Once that initial grant period ended, Leingang says, “We were able to open GSTEM up to students from across the country. These students stay in NYU housing and are able to form even stronger bonds with their peers during the program.” GSTEM now aims for a 50/50 balance between commuting and on-campus participants, with financial aid and scholarship opportunities available. “All of the students are enrolled in NYU Summer Programs,” Leingang continues, “through which they can see Broadway shows, baseball games, and other fun local activities.”

Besides opening up eligibility to other parts of the country, GSTEM has expanded upon its original mission in other ways. “GSTEM was traditionally an all-girls program,” Tissot explains, “Now we want to support all groups historically underrepresented in STEM. Girls are still our priority, but there’s a lot of ground to make up in regards to gender, race, socioeconomic status.” So while the summer research program has remained the same in regards to size and structure, its target audience has grown. “Our course offerings have also expanded,” says Tissot. Last spring, GSTEM successfully launched an online class in Data Science, discovering an untapped niche among students. Tissot notes, “Regardless of the STEM field you pursue, you will benefit from a data science background these days. And data science is very rarely taught as part of the high school curriculum.”

The GSTEM curriculum aims to fill the gaps by providing mentorship across all of the sciences. Though this is sometimes easier said than done. “It has always been particularly challenging to find research-level math projects for high school students,” Leingang says, “but computer science, machine learning, and artificial intelligence have proven to be fruitful.” How can we help support the M in STEM? “We would love to enable more Courant faculty to participate in GSTEM as mentors,” says Professor Leingang. We can all do our part to make the sciences a more welcoming place.

Back at the 2023 Annual Symposium, Jaretzy Cruz Reyes enjoys a slice of GSTEM’s birthday cake and shares a bit about her summer in the program. “It was an incredible experience,” she says, “I learned so much and saw so much.”  Jaretzy, a seventeen-year-old student from Long Island, is attending the event with her father, her sister, and her high school science teacher John O’Sullivan. Mr. O’Sullivan is the one who originally recommended that Jaretzy apply to GSTEM, and he traveled into the city to hear her presentation on Natural Disasters and the Building Code. “Her work today blew me away,” he says, “Jaretzy has been talking about artificial intelligence since before it was a hot topic, so it’s amazing to see her further develop and apply her research.”

Jaretzy and her fellow students undergo a profound change during their time in GSTEM. “To see how our students transform over the summer is my favorite part of the job,” Catherine Tissot says, “By the end of the six weeks, they have gained remarkable confidence.  Not only do they accomplish much in the way of their STEM research, but they navigate the city on their own, they learn how to manage their time, and they make lasting friendships.” The hope is that this personal success will translate to systemic change. “Research into programs like ours show that they are fixing some of the leaks in the STEM pipeline,” Professor Leingang says, “We are still working for stronger representation across the board, and it will be a while before we can see those effects.”

On an individual level, the effects of GSTEM are already clear. The focused preparation and research experience provided by the program helps underrepresented students to feel more confident in themselves and their chosen fields. The new alums radiate with pride at their accomplishment. As the symposium concludes, Jaretzy cradles her souvenir mug like a trophy. “I’m going to be drinking my tea out of this every morning,” she says, miming a sip and tapping on the colorful GSTEM logo, “and I’ll be thinking to myself I did that!

Left photo: Jaretzy Cruz Reyes with her sister and father, courtesy of John O'Sullivan.

Right photo: Students at the GSTEM Annual Symposium, courtesy of NYU GSTEM.