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This program has a brilliant plan for bringing diversity to the world of STEM.

When Dr. Jennifer R. Cohen was working as a molecular biologist, she often wondered why no one else in her sector looked like her.

As a black woman, Cohen is not the typical face you’d see in a biochemistry lab. The sad reality is science and technology careers are still predominately assumed by white men even though there is a large reservoir of untapped talent among women and people of color.

The reason for the disparity seems to lie in a lack of resources to help talented but underrepresented students reach higher academic levels. While some colleges are currently looking to diversify, it’s often difficult for these students to get on their radar without some sort of assistance.

Cohen knew how much underrepresented talent there was out there just waiting to realize their full potential, so she joined the SMASH program.

SMASH, or Summer Math and Science Honors, is a subsection of the nonprofit organization Level the Playing Field Institute. It’s a rigorous, three-year summer program that provides settings and resources to students who are underrepresented in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and math) free of charge. The courses take place at colleges, like UCLA and UC Berkeley, that are leading the way in these fields.

By throwing these students headfirst into an environment stocked with resources, SMASH is giving them all they need to totally “own” STEM.

Students learning computer science in the SMASH University of California at Davis program. All photos via SMASH.

The movement, however, is not just about bolstering science skills. It’s about creating a pipeline into colleges that will help students launch a life pursuing some of the coolest, most sought-after and most impactful STEM-related careers out there.

But they have to get in first.

Aside from helping to eliminate the barriers to a college degree and subsequent career, SMASH’s teachers are doing all they can to give their students confidence. The STEM fields aren’t exactly handing out positions to women and people of color, so they’ll need all the conviction they have to get ahead.

UCLA’s SMASH program, for example, is brimming with teachers who are women of color, and experts in their fields. Pre-calculus instructor Patrice Smith got her Bachelor of Science from UCLA in Mathematics/Applied Science and specializations in Business Administration and Computing. Having role models like her likely encourages the 53% of young women who populate the UCLA program.

Students at SMASH UC Berkeley working in a lab.

“We help them to see that they belong and that they have what it takes so there’s no question in their minds that they can be successful,” Cohen explains.

Having been the only woman of color in the room, Cohen feels she can be especially helpful to the young women in SMASH. Her experience working in STEM shines a light on the inequality and need for change.

But, thanks to SMASH, change is happening, and its students are walking, dissecting, coding, algorithm-solving proof.

Leilani Reyes at SMASH Stanford.

Leilani Reyes, a first-generation college student from Fairfield, California, is studying computer science at Stanford University and was recently a software engineer intern at Medium. She’s forever grateful to SMASH for opening up this world of opportunity to her.

“Academically, it granted me rigor and, more importantly, support from teachers and staff who empowered me to be curious and socially conscious in STEM exploration,” writes Reyes in an email. “Professionally, it granted me resources to develop essential skills like public speaking and connections to mentors and role models who I look to for advice and inspiration.”

Michael Pearson, who attended SMASH UCLA, blossomed into one of the most accomplished computer science students, often helping others with their homework after finishing his own. He’s now pursuing a career in Cognitive and Computer Science at the University of Pennsylvania.

And Thomas Estrada, who went through SMASH UC Berkeley, was awarded the Regent and Chancellor’s Scholarship, which helped fund his undergraduate tuition there. He majored in computer science, and is now pursuing his doctorate. This summer, he landed a coveted internship with Google.

Moises Limon, a first year at SMASH UC Berkeley.

In terms of overall numbers, 78% of current SMASH freshman declared a STEM major. To date, 55% of SMASH alumni college graduates complete with a STEM major. That’s huge compared to the national average of STEM graduates, just 22%. Obviously the program is doing something right.

In the last 17 years, SMASH has helped over 500 alumni hit their academic and career goals.

The program is rapidly expanding into a national institution. One of the first east coast schools they’re partnering with is the prestigious Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania. There’s no telling how far SMASH’s influence will go now.

This story was updated on 10/20/2017.

Read more: http://www.upworthy.com/this-program-has-a-brilliant-plan-for-bringing-diversity-to-the-world-of-stem

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They had 15 hours to come up with an idea that’d improve lives. They did it.

They had 15 hours to come up with an idea for a revolutionary device that would make people’s lives better.

And they had to beat out hundreds of other teams that had some of the best student hackers in the world.

“Our first idea was a dancing robot that, like, danced with you if youre lonely in a dance club,” Charlene Xia said with a chuckle.

She and friends Chandani Doshi, Grace Li, Jialin Shi, Bonnie Wang, and Tania Yu were taking part in the MakeMIT hackathon MIT’s premier technology design competition. They and other students were tasked with coming up with a prototype for a new device.

Xia continued: “Then we moved to a braille watch that we saw a concept model of that somebody posted online. It got us thinking, ‘Well, wait a second, is there a thing like a text-to-braille converter? Like it translates and scans images of text on a book and converts it to braille when you move up and down?’ We kept googling and nothing came out.”

The young inventors began to lay the foundation for Tactile, the world’s first real-time text-to-braille converter.

It was a daunting challenge to say the least, but one that these young women, dubbed Team Tactile, were more than ready for.

“The good thing was that our team was very diverse,” said Shi. “We have people who studied material science, mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, and computer science.”

Of course, as most projects go, hurdles inevitably popped up. From the hourlong lines at the 3D printer to their code not working properly, it was one heck of a photo finish.

“Basically, nothing came together until the last 15 minutes,” added Shi. “Thats when we were finally able to take a picture of some text and finally translate that into some motor movement, which translated into a braille character. It was stressful, but it was definitely one of the highlights of our time here at MIT that moment when something you make from scratch finally works and your concept is realized.

Team Tactile ended up winning first place in the hackathon. But their journey was just getting started.

The team received incredible support and encouragement from the mentors involved with the hackathon and one mentor, in particular, had a lasting effect.

Paul Parravano is the co-director of MIT’s Government and Community Relations office. He’s been blind since age 3. He told Team Tactile that their invention could have a huge impact on the visually impaired community, especially since they experience many pain points when it comes to access to information no more than 5% of books are accessible to them.

Ultimately, providing someone who is visually impaired with the ability to read any book out in the world was too important not to pursue.

“The impact that we could potentially have in the future is really what drove us to continue working as a team,” said Wang. “Just working it out despite our problem sets, all the exams, projects and everything, we still keep going and just try to take the prototype as far as we can.”

“An audio translator won’t be able to translate all the mathematical signs and symbols,” said Shi. “Theres also everyday life something as simple as reading packaging labels and just knowing your surroundings. Not [having to ask] for help for every little thing.”

Right now, the team is still working to refine Tactile to make sure it’s as efficient and affordable as possible. After graduation, they plan to work on it full time, and they have their sights set on getting this invention into the hands of all those who truly need it whether in the U.S. or in the developing world.

Added Wang, “Ideally … one day, every visually impaired person will have a Tactile device something that they carry around with them every day and use on a daily basis to access the information around them.”

Team Tactile’s invention is so promising that they were selected to be a part of Microsoft’s #MakeWhatsNext Patent Program.

The program focuses on two things: helping young female inventors navigate the legal hurdles that come with securing patents and empowering young women to bridge the gender gap in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics).

“They really helped us take the stress away from the patent process and allowed us to focus on the technology the part that we’re passionate about developing,” said Wang.

Tactile is a great example of the type of life-changing innovation that can come from technology, and Microsoft is committed to ensuring that everyone especially young girls has access to computer science education resources so they, too, can unlock the power to create with technology.

“Why is that the case when you think of patents, you don’t think of women inventors?” wondered Xia. “Right now, there’s a movement towards building this community of women engineers and inventors, and we’re really happy and honored to be part of this movement and contribute as much as we can to make sure this movement continues and grows.”

Read more: http://www.upworthy.com/they-had-15-hours-to-come-up-with-an-idea-thatd-improve-lives-they-did-it

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