In NYC, Students Tackle Cyber Threats — and the Digital Gender Divide

August 13, 2018

If a 16-year-old high school student is willing to travel two hours each way for a class during summer break, it’s safe to say that class must be cool.

For three weeks this summer, 16-year-old Nikki commuted four hours a day from her home in New Jersey to the Brooklyn campus of New York University to learn about cybersecurity, cryptography and coding. “I was attracted to this [course] because it was three weeks long, so I was like, 'You know what? They gotta give me a lot of information in that time.’ And computer science, it just seems cool. It's what's moving this world at this point."

Making STEM More Accessible

The course, Computer Science for Cyber Security (CS4CS), is a free course run by New York University’s Tandon School of Engineering, as part of its K12 Science, Technology, Mathematics and Engineering (STEM) Education initiative. The goal is to make STEM accessible to students who might not otherwise have opportunities—particularly low-income, minority students in districts where schools have been slower to adopt STEM learning—and to spark a passion for STEM as early as possible.

The programs take place every summer at New York University’s campus in downtown Brooklyn. Undergraduate and graduate engineering students from Tandon are trained to teach the courses, which serve about 300 high school students each summer. Funding comes from foundations and organizations, including the Depository Trust and Clearing Corporation (DTCC), Con Edison, and the Pinkerton Foundation.

During this summer’s CS4CS course, the girls learned about cryptography, steganography, databases, and coding languages like Python. They then applied the skills they learned to projects.

Ruth, a CS4CS student, explained her favorite project: “At the end of the program we did this Ariana Grande detective case in which she went away during a concert, she actually just disappeared. We had to find clues and piece them together using cryptography and steganography...It’s little set-ups to get our minds flowing. They gave us flash drives. They made us feel like real detectives and forensic investigators. That’s the type of thing that I really love about the program.”

Like Ruth, Nikki is glad she took the chance on the program, despite the long commute: “This experience has honestly been life changing! I've met so many new people and am empowered to be able to continue coding.”

Ben Esner, director of K12 STEM, says he and his colleagues opted not to limit acceptance to people who live nearby because the whole point of the program is to increase the number of students being exposed to STEM.  


Broadening STEM Literacy

STEM skills are increasingly important to students’ success in the 21st Century workplace. Courses and schools focused primarily on STEM learning promote students behaving more like scientists: experimenting, making use of new technologies, and collaborating on projects. But as crucial as STEM learning is, differences in access to STEM approaches among public schools mean a large population of students are typically left out.

While some public school systems in America have made strides to include more STEM-based curriculum in schools, schools with fewer resources are often left behind. Many young people are never exposed to STEM, and never have the opportunity to gain an interest in or develop passion or skills for scientific studies. Data cited by the White House in 2015 stated that fewer than half of high schools offered computer programming, and nearly 40 percent of high schools did not offer physics classes that year.

Furthermore, there is some evidence to suggest that offering access only in high school may be too late in a student’s education, as reported in recent working papers published by the National Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data In Education Research (CALDER).

According to Coder Academy, only about 16 percent of college graduates have majored or minored in a STEM field or subject, which will make it hard to fill the approximately 1.2 million job vacancies expected in these industries by the end of 2018.

Taking on Cyber Threats   And the Gender Divide

STEM fields are also well-known for their lack of access to and inclusivity of women and girls. According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, women fill almost half of all jobs in the U.S. economy, but still hold less than 25 percent of STEM jobs.

Tandon’s Computer Science for Cyber Security (CS4CS) course, in particular, offers spots for about 48 girls from high schools in the New York City area, and involves three weeks of classes in STEM at the Tandon campus free of charge, which helps remove a barrier for young students.

To apply for CS4CS, students submit an application and a written essay explaining why they would like to be a part of the program. Applicants don’t need any prior experience in the sciences, cyber security or computer science, and can be from anywhere in the metropolitan area.

Professor Phyllis Frankl, a teacher at the K12 program, feels especially drawn to helping young girls break down the barriers in STEM fields.

“When I studied math and science as an undergrad and computer science as a grad student, I felt isolated and a little weird because there were only a few other female students and even fewer female professors,” she said. “Once there's a critical mass of women in a field, the negative stereotypes dissipate, the culture of the field becomes more accepting, and more and more women and other underrepresented groups can get the challenging, interesting, and well-paying careers they deserve.”

Nikki proudly explained that she used her new Python skills on a personal project during the course of the program.

“I had never seen Python and one of my first thoughts was that one of our instructors says iconic lines all the time, and I don't know why but my first thought was to make a Python program based on him. And that's exactly what I did,” she said.

When she showed him what she had coded based on funny things he said in class, Nikki said he was impressed and responded by laughing. “So I think that was personally my favorite thing."

The other girls who participated in the program described the experience as transformative. When asked about being surrounded by mostly women, many explained that it was a positive and nurturing experience.

“I learned to look at things through other people’s eyes and definitely I learned how to be a better leader, to collaborate, to be more helpful,” Nikki said, adding that, “Being surrounded by women is kind of empowering. You look around, and all these women are doing things and are so underrepresented, so overshadowed by every other male in the world. So it's like, ‘Hey! All these women came here. We all applied and we all want to do this!’ You know what, maybe we can push forward together.”

Ruth, who is 14 and just beginning school at Valley Stream North High School, and Nikki, both plan on bringing what they’ve learned back to school with them. Ruth even plans to perhaps start a STEM club at her school. “I just want to take all this information, soak it up, and present it to my peers.”

The CS4CS alum are walking away from this program with new experiences, bigger networks, and new skills.

The program is not only enriching for the high school students, but also for the NYU students who teach the course.

One of the instructors, Yin Mei, said, “I think it really clicks with kids. One student made a simulator game, someone made a choose-your-own adventure game. The really rewarding part of it is seeing that these young women have created something lasting where they can walk away and it will be there beyond this program. I can’t wait to see them go to college and enter the field.”

In addition, separate summer programs within the K12 STEM portfolio help approximately 55 teachers from New York City public schools learn how to teach STEM curriculum and engage their students. Every course is free and laptops are provided to the students, and materials and payment are provided for the teachers who come to learn new ways to infuse STEM learning in their classrooms.

Learn More
For more information on the K12 STEM programs at NYU, visit the website here. For more information on the CS4CS course in particular, visit the program site here.


Zenzele Franklin is passionate about access to opportunity, digital equity, and about empowering women and girls. She has served as a  YWLEADer at the YWCA Brooklyn, organized events and safe spaces for young people to discuss racism and other issues that bother them, and spoken on panels with politicians about adversities facing girls of color in the school system. In 2018, she lobbied in Albany to help end the School to Prison Pipeline. She is an alum of the Girls Who Code Summer Immersion Program. She is a rising sophomore Binghamton Advantage student at Binghamton University, majoring in computer science.

From Zenzele: "I am a pretty well-rounded person which comes with being open-minded. One of the goals in my life is being able to make a positive difference in the world. Throughout my first year of college, I felt that declaring a major boxed me in. I was trying to figure out how I could combine my interest in advocacy with my passion for computer science.  Being a Digital Fellow at SparkAction allows me to do just that. I get to put my coding skills to work in a social justice setting, and learn as I work."

Elly Belle is a communications strategist and writer with a passion for youth empowerment, advocacy, culture and media. Elly is most passionate about youth development, reproductive health, mental health, advocacy for the LGBTQIA community, immigration, and advocacy for sexual assault survivors—and she's written about all of it and more for outlets like Bust and Teen Vogue, where she's a regular contributor. She has worked for organizations focused on social change and human rights such as The Fresh Air Fund, Camino Public Relations, and PEN America. Elly holds a Bachelor of Arts in Public Relations and Religion from Hofstra University, where she first found and honed her passion for advocacy.

In her spare time, Elly enjoys drinking intense amounts of coffee while attempting to read five books at once, and most enjoys exploring everything New York City and its boroughs have to offer, including going to spoken word poetry shows, literary events, and museums. She also gets a kick out of cooking new recipes and pretending she's competing on a Food Network show.