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.
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.