Leveling up STEM’s playing field

Low-income, minority students with good grades and high, if vague, aspirations of a career in science, engineering, or technology, face a gauntlet of challenges between the first day of high school and the last day of college. No wonder so many fall by the wayside.

There’s the illusion of rigor from doing well in weak schools; there’s the scarcity of guidance counseling and ignorance of college entrance requirements; there’s peer influence, distractions, and financial pressure to work. Then, when they get to college, there’s loneliness, insecurity, and often the stark realization of holes in their academic preparation for majoring in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math).

There’s all that, but then there’s SMASH Academy – an intensive three-year summer program for minority students run by the Level Playing Field Institute in San Francisco that does just what the nonprofit’s name implies: The program is proving to be a great equalizer and confidence builder for students whose talents need to be nurtured and reinforced.

Last month, SMASH completed its eighth year at UC Berkeley and its first year at Stanford. For five weeks at each campus, 80 high school students heading into their sophomore, junior, and senior years took five hours of classes daily – high school math and science prep courses in the morning, and integrated math-science classes and hands-on learning in the afternoon. In the evenings and on weekends, they were mentored in the dorms by graduate students who had been in their shoes and could share their experiences and successes in college.

David Sanchez, left, and Ruben Tapia, first-year SMASH scholars at Stanford (Fensterwald photo).
David Sanchez, left, and Ruben Tapia, first-year SMASH scholars at Stanford (Fensterwald photo).

It’s a competitive program, with three applicants for every spot, and results have been encouraging. Ninety-four percent of students have completed the three-year program over the past six years; 90 percent have gone on to college. The Level Playing Field Institute says that between 55 and 60 percent major in a STEM field; 70 percent are the first from their families to go to college; 70 percent are low-income.

Out of the 23 who graduated high school this year, all will go to college, with some headed to Stanford, Cal, UCLA, MIT, UC Davis, Middlebury College, Drexel, and George Washington University.

Some might have ended up there anyway, with the encouragement of a special teacher and the prodding of persistent parents. These are bright kids.

But most would not have without the SMASH experience, says Robert Schwartz, the program’s executive director. “These are high-potential students in low-performing schools; most would go to a lesser-quality four-year school. They’re getting 3.8 grade point averages but would have gotten 2.8 at Palo Alto High. They’ve never been challenged as they need to be challenged,” he says.

Schwartz recruits students through math and science teachers at low-income high schools and by word of mouth. Students must have a B average in math and science; most have taken geometry in ninth grade.

But grades can be deceiving. Schwartz says that only 45-50 percent of the students arrive proficient in geometry. SMASH identifies gaps that must be filled for students to complete high school ready for a STEM major. And it asks the bigger question, What do students need to be successful in college that they’re not getting in their high schools?

A full immersion in college

They take public speaking and classes in analytical writing; they form study groups and figure out how to navigate a big university campus and use its resources. They learn how to use the software Prezi to make class presentations. And in classes that combine math and science, they put STEM to work solving problems.

The first year students use math to model the transmission of HIV infections. To do that, they first analyze a famous research paper by Dr. Reuben Granich showing how HIV testing and antiviral therapy can thwart the spread of AIDS. For rising sophomores, it’s a mind stretch.

Students at Cal met with professors who talked about their work and careers. At Stanford, students shadowed grad students doing research.

But much of the learning takes place at the dorm, where their Residential Advisors tell what it’s like majoring in science and where they confront their doubts.

“I thought of Stanford as just for white people with money,” said David Santos, whom I met at the end of the program celebration outside the Mudd Chemistry Building at Stanford. “I saw  graduate students of color doing research and making presentations.”

David, who is entering his sophomore year at KIPP King Collegiate Academy in San Lorenzo, wants to study neurology “and how the brain works,” an interest since a sixth grade trip to a museum. As with most of the scholars, David had not been to a summer camp. SMASH was his first lengthy time away from home. By the time he goes to college, he will have lived 15 weeks – nearly a semester – on a campus already.

And he will have spent that time – and monthly meetings during the year – forming friendships with students with ambitions of college. For Ruben Tapia, an aspiring engineer from San Jose, that’s a contrast from Mount Pleasant High, where “there are always two or three in a class who try to bring you down, tell you not to do the work because it doesn’t matter.”

“It’s easier to work with kids here. They are also motivated,” he said.

Silicon Valley tech pioneer Mitch Kapor and his wife, Freada, created SMASH Academy based on a summer program for minority students at Phillips Andover Academy in Massachusetts, and they have been its primary financial backers. The cost of the summer program at each campus is between $500,000 and $700,000, with an additional $2 million to run Level Playing Field Institute.

There are plans to expand to Los Angeles, at UCLA and USC, next year and to Yale, if alumni donors can be found. Beyond that, SMASH may go nationwide in five years.

Producing enough minority engineers, scientists, and technologists may depend on it.

Remix of knowledge acquisition and practice are elements of Learning 2.0

The words “remix” and “mashup” entered the vocabulary as descriptors of life in the digital age.  They are also key to what I am calling Learning 2.0, the next full-scale version of public education.

At the simplest level, these new terms are represented by three teenagers using Apple Garage Band to combine bits and pieces of music into their own composition.  At a more complex level, the process of remix changes the nature of authorship, as it did for a recent book on digital learning in which the authors of the draft posted their text for comment and addition.  Hundreds of people responded, and the book draft is still undergoing revision even after its publication by a university press.

Remix and mashup are linguistic markers for a growing practice of peer-produced learning, one that extends the instinct for tinkering and play into an approach to learning and scholarship.  As pedagogy, these new words signal moving away from consumption to participation and from concentrating our attention on teaching to concentrating on learning.  The shift in learning is not necessarily computer driven.  As Connie Yowell, director of education at the MacArthur Foundation notes: “Our digital media and learning initiative is not about technology, turning our backs on teachers, or throwing out traditional literacy skills.  It is about what people do with digital media — especially the potential for peer-based learning.”  Indeed, the instinct for peer learning by doing infused the philosophy of John Dewey a century ago.

A glimpse of this world can be found in Exhibition Night at High Tech High in San Diego.  Students at High Tech High learn from a pedagogy that deliberately integrates things that schools and society have sought to separate: head and hands, school and community.   Thus, students in biology demonstrated their latest fieldwork, the DNA typing of samples from San Diego Bay.  The students’ trips to the shore are not casual encounters, but real science that has led to six published books.  Science is linked with history and language arts.  As biotechnology teacher Jay Vavra says pointing to the English classroom across the hall, “Remember Cannery Row?   I’m Ricketts; he’s Steinbeck.”

Once a year, High Tech High students present their work to parents and the community.  These evenings are more than Science Fair; the act of explaining one’s work is part of the curriculum.  Exhibition Night included student-written plays, a textbook on economics illustrated with linoleum block art, a conceptual art exhibit that was the product of lessons in geometry.  The crowd pleaser of the night was a homicide scene complete with a dead mannequin, crime scene tape, and blood splatters.  In his lab coat, the presenting student shows listeners how he and his fellow students were able to use geometry to determine the height and weight of the perpetrator and the type of murder weapon.  (Conclusion: The teacher did it; her DNA was found on a toothbrush left at the crime scene.)

Head and hand integration are also present at The Stanley E. Foster Construction Technology Academy, a San Diego Unified School District high school just miles away from High Tech High.  The school has broken down the traditional 7-period high school day into instructional blocks that allow students to pursue traditional academic subjects and exciting projects at the same time.  In 2007, some 81 percent of the graduates were accepted in colleges.

Unfortunately, educators and policy advocates are deeply divided about how and whether to create schools that combine learning and becoming.   Recently, Robert Schwartz, academic dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, did verbal battle with Kati Haycock, president of Education Trust, with Haycock saying that career-focused programs would mean giving up on the resources that low-income and minority kids need to succeed in school.

Schwartz and his colleagues had recently published Pathways to Prosperity that, among other things, criticized the college-for-all strategy as doomed to failure without much stronger career-oriented programs. Although the employment market is steadily demanding more education, they note, the largest employment bulge, and the greatest wage premium, appears for jobs requiring post-secondary licenses or certificates rather than bachelor’s degrees.

Linked Learning combines head and hands

Schools like High Tech High and the Construction Technology Academy have allowed practice to transcend the century-old debate over the value of academic versus vocational education.  They want both.  They believe the symbiosis engages students who would otherwise drop out or who would glide through high school’s path of least resistance.

Several California educators and organizations have been attempting to craft a practical solution.  Under the names Multiple Pathways or Linked Learning, policy advocates such as Jeannie Oakes at the Ford Foundation and David Rattray at the school and employer partnership, UNITE-LA, seek to create policies and practices that bring academic and career education together, getting beyond tracking.  Los Angeles Unified schools provide some vibrant examples:

Ninth grade students at the School for Global Studies near downtown Los Angeles tackled a project to support undocumented students who are headed to college, a homegrown version of the Dream Act.  Their task, the shell of a project designed by their teachers, was to design a fundraiser that would help these students with enough money to pay for their college applications.  The students I heard thought that luscious strawberries dipped in chocolate would be a sure seller.  They used their algebra skills to plot a break-even point and figure profit margins at different production levels, their English language arts skills to promote the effort, and their digital media skills to produce a mouth-watering video.

In the process of completing projects, students learn teamwork and self-monitoring.  They divide up the work and hold one another accountable.  If a student fails to produce, it lets the whole team down, and they—the other students—will intervene with the errant student and his or her parents.  Students also learn important oral communications skills.  Meanwhile, the students’ teachers continue to provide lessons, quizzes, and reading related to California standards and the test items and question forms used on the California Standards and the high school exit exam.

At a training facility near LAX, the Police Orientation and Preparation Program links the school district, West L.A. College, and the Los Angeles Police Department.  Students, who can come from any school in the city, enter as seniors or as community college freshmen.  The high school students can finish their college-entry required courses and earn college credit while finishing high school.  In two years it is possible for a high school senior to have graduated, earned an AA degree, and received a certificate qualifying them to work in a private security firm.  They also have a leg up on candidacy for the LAPD academy.

The police preparation program and Global Studies Academy prepare students for college and careers simultaneously.  In California, unlike many other locations, the state’s flagship university reviews individual course descriptions from public and private high schools to determine whether they meet entry requirements, known as the A-G requirements.  More than 5,600 courses, about 20 percent of all career-technical education offerings, already satisfy University of California entrance requirements.  UC also sponsors the Curriculum Integration Institute, where academic and career technical education experts meet to design integrative model courses.

As well as university standards, Linked Learning requires real world, craft and artistic standards.  For example, ACME animation, a non-profit organization, connects high school and college students with professional animators.  ACME grew from the teaching experience of Dave Master, who started an animation program at Rowland High School, east of Los Angeles, in 1977.  High school students begin as auditioners, but even from the start their work is subject to professional standards and critique.  No sugarcoating.  And the same method—not unlike introduction to the historic artisanal guilds—is used for more advanced students who want to earn a living in animation.  Professionals donate their time, and more than 3,000 students in 35 schools and colleges nationwide participate.  Four of these schools are in the Los Angeles Unified School District.

The remix of head and hand is a powerful idea, but Linked Learning or Multiple Pathway schools have to work as organizations.  Because combining head and hand runs counter to many of the deep structures of American high schools, the multiple pathway idea becomes tractable because each pathway is usually contained in an “academy” within a larger school or a small school, such as a magnet, charter, or pilot school.  Thus, the capacity for remix, linking head and hand, lies partly in public policies that allow substantial autonomy and self-determination at the school level.

It’s difficult work, but it is one of the areas of education where California is a national leader.  The James Irvine Foundation has heavily supported Linked Learning, including founding ConnectEd, the California Center for College and Career.  A number of organizations, including the Buck Institute,  and the New Tech Network provide introductory training and an extensive library of projects that schools can adopt.

Charles Taylor Kerchner is Research Professor in the School of Educational Studies at Claremont Graduate University, and a specialist in educational organizations, educational policy, and teacher unions. In 2008, he and his colleagues completed a four-year study of education reform of the Los Angeles Unified School District. The results of that research can be found in The Transformation of Great American School Districts and in Learning from L.A.: Institutional Change in American Public Education, published by Harvard Education Press. Readers can follow his writing at http://charlestkerchner.com/