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.
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.
“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, 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.
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.