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UCLA SMASH Program Preparing Students for Tech America 
By Jennifer Bihm, Staff Writer 
Published July 27, 2017

The SMASH program offers STEM-intensive, college preparatory classes to high school students of color.         (Photo courtesy of lpfi.org)

“The consistent thing we hear from the Facebooks and Googles of the world is that they are not able to identify young talented people of color,” explained Eli Kennedy CEO of the Level Playing Field Institute, the organization that heads up the Summer Math and Science Honors program at UCLA.

“At the same time, we’re seeing job growth in America being driven by the tech sector.”

Low income students of color need the SMASH program to be able to compete, he said.

That is why, according to program officials, SMASH is free of charge.

The group offers a STEM-intensive college preparatory program for underrepresented high school students of color, boasting a rigorous 5-week, 3-year summer, fully residential enrichment program which provides access to STEM coursework and access to mentors, role models, and support networks of students of color.

Each summer, SMASH scholars spend five weeks on a college campus immersed in STEM and live among other high-potential, underrepresented (African American, Latino, Native American, Southeast Asian or Pacific Islander, low-income, first-in-family to attend college, etc.,) high school students.

“They get about 12 hours each day,” Kennedy said.

“It [includes] academics where we strengthen their STEM skills. They take math classes, science,  from biology to physics. They take engineering courses, computer science … this is to augment what they’re getting in the school year. We work on the whole student. We help to build their confidence in speaking, apply to college, etc.”

In addition to their summer courses, SMASH scholars remain engaged during the school year through monthly STEM workshops and academic programming, Kennedy said. This includes SAT prep, college counseling, financial aid workshops, and other activities to ensure continued academic success.

“Let’s face it,” said Kennedy.

“The students that end up at Google aren’t students who are swimming all summer. They are students who are going to advanced STEM programs, who are learning coding. So we thought it was really important to offer that same opportunity to students who are low income and can’t afford it.

“The education being provided by schools in the low-income areas are tremendously lacking in STEM. There are not enough qualified teachers, there aren’t enough quality classes in high schools that are serving low income students…”

The Level Playing Field Institute began in 2001, when Freada Kapor Klein, founder, became frustrated by the inability of the for-profit world to foster diversity, according to information gathered from lpfi.org.

“Having already spent nearly three decades consulting to organizations on issues of discrimination and diversity, Freada aimed to tackle the problem from a different vantage point. She created a non-profit institute to rigorously and creatively address why diversity efforts had failed and more significantly, to examine and implement programs to understand and experience how diversity could succeed. Upon a foundation of improving civility, fairness, and opportunity in workplaces, the Level Playing Field Institute was established,” according to the website.

The SMASH Academy was launched in 2004; a program inspired by and loosely modeled after Phillips Academy Andover’s Math and Science for Minority Students at UC Berkeley. In 2006, program officials added a year-round academic program, based on student requests. In 2007, they “saw 100% of our first class of scholars apply to and enter college. In 2011, we expanded to Stanford, followed by the launch of academies at UCLA and USC in 2012,” according to the website.

In the summer of 2015, LPFI launched the SMASH: Pathways UC Davis program.

“We have high college and workforce entry rates so far and we’re really proud of those results,” Kennedy said.

The most important thing, he said, is that the program is providing for students the potential to use tech to give back to their communities and the world by solving problems like diabetes and cancer for instance.

“They’ll be going out and building companies (possibly) that are designed to improve the world,” said Kennedy.

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