On Nov. 15, in front of a cheering audience of their peers, six Cornell Engineering students explored how freedom of expression intersects with engineering and technology — delving into complex and difficult issues like algorithmic bias, law enforcement surveillance, and code-switching in the workplace — and one of them walked away with $2,000.
The presenters were all finalists in the Undergraduate Students Present About Research and Knowledge (uSPARK) 2023 competition hosted by the Engineering Communications Program in Cornell Engineering and made possible with funding from the Roger K. Berman Oral Presentation Award.
“This year’s finalists bravely shone a light on how academic freedom, freedom of expression, and engineering work intersect in complicated and challenging ways,” said Traci Nathans-Kelly, director of the Engineering Communications Program. “They all presented on very nuanced topics in a clear and effective manner, demonstrating essential skills we aim to imbue in all Cornell engineers.”
The theme for this year’s uSPARK event was selected in support of “The Indispensable Condition: Freedom of Expression at Cornell,” the university-wide theme for the 2023–2024 academic year. Benjamin N. Cardozo, an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1930s, famously referred to freedom of expression as “the matrix, the indispensable condition, of nearly every other form of freedom.”
In order to reach the uSPARK finals, each contestant had to submit a topic proposal, attend required presentation training meetings and submit a video of an initial version of their presentation. Those subsequently chosen to compete as finalists had up to five minutes to present on their chosen topic in front of a live audience and a panel of judges.
All students who made it to the final round received awards. Judges selected a grand prize winner, who was awarded $2,000, and a runner-up, who won $500. The audience voted for their favorite, who also received a $500 prize. The remaining finalists also received monetary awards.
The uSPARK 2023 awardees were:
- Grand Prize: Lila Rallatos ’24, “The Gender Drop-Down: How Technical Education Objectifies, Hates, and Ignores Transgender Engineers”
- Runner-Up: Max Garval ’24, “Engineers Sold Your Face to the NYPD”
- Audience Choice: Maya Yu ’24, “Promoting Diversity and Individuality in Engineering Workplaces: Addressing the Impact of Assimilation Culture and Code-Switching”
- Jonathan Indajang ’25, “What We Owe Each Other: Health Care and the Engineer”
- Oliver Sandiford ’23, “Unraveling Prejudice Present in Machine Algorithm Recruitment: Circumventing Bias in Applicant Screening”
- Nadav Soudry ’24, “Conflict Between Engineers and Product Managers”
On behalf of the Engineering Communications Program, Nathans-Kelly expressed appreciation to the Berman family, as well as all the student participants, judges and attendees of the event.
“All of the students did an excellent job with their presentations, and it was fascinating to hear such a range of topics,” said Chris Lastovicka, a member of the judging panel and the digital platform and strategy manager for Cornell Engineering. “Ultimately, what inspired me the most was the way in which everyone in the room listened to each other and enthusiastically supported their peers.”