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Morehouse joins elite STEM training program

SMASH Academy is building new generations of scientists and engineers

Morehouse College has become the first historically black campus to join an elite West Coast-based science and math training program whose main mission is to identify and train African-American and Latino technology workers.

The Summer Math and Science Honors Academy (SMASH) typically trains rising 10th- through 12th-graders in a 5-week residential summer program that exposes them to computer science, math, science and engineering design.

The program, created by Level Playing Field Institute (LPFI) in Oakland, California, started in 2004 and has academies at the University of California-Berkeley (original site), Stanford University, University of California-Los Angeles and University of California-Davis.

U.S. News & World Report has called the SMASH Academy “perhaps the most ambitious program to encourage African-American and Latino students in STEM fields.”

The program accepts about 300 students annually from 1,200 applications.

Program leaders and alumni in SMASH continue to mentor and train its students throughout college and into their careers.

Sixty-four percent of SMASH alumni who have graduated from college are working in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields.

The STEM field features the highest-paying and fastest-growing careers, and the United States is projected to need 2.3 million workers by 2022.

Only 11 percent of the nation’s science and engineering workforce is African-American or Latino, and that group also earns just 17 percent of all science and engineering degrees.

Moreover, African-Americans and Latinos make up just 18 percent of students taking Advanced Placement math and science exams.

Morehouse jump-started its participation this summer with a unique SMASH Pathways bridge program that accepted all 39 rising ninth-graders who applied from underrepresented areas of Atlanta.

The students will sacrifice their summer Fridays and Saturdays for five weeks, from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., to study math and science concepts and to develop a social conscience about careers in science.

Starting in summer 2017, 28-30 rising sophomores will be accepted in the full SMASH Academy residential program at Morehouse, which they could follow throughout high school.

African-American and Latinos lag in the high-paying careers in STEM, and while many programs exist to tackle the problem, few have the long-term elements of SMASH Academy, which essentially bonds with its participants for life.

Wearing the program’s “Champion” hat at Morehouse is associate professor David Wall Rice, an alum who is the assistant provost for student success and chair of the psychology department at Morehouse.

“The reason that STEM is a hot-button issue within marginalized communities,” Rice said, “is because it has the capacity to be an equalizer.”

The SMASH Pathways program launch at Morehouse is in line with a pledge by LPFI founder Freada Kapor Klein and her husband Mitch Kapor to invest $40 million to expand SMASH programs across the nation.

Morehouse jumped at the opportunity to form a SMASH partnership.

“We cannot expect children from underrepresented communities to flourish in the tech space if they are not provided the same resources and opportunities to participate as their more privileged counterparts,” Morehouse President John Silvanus Wilson Jr. said.

STEM: ‘The engine of our community’

“At Morehouse, we are proudly taking the necessary steps to ensure we change the status quo in tech by partnering with LPFI and offering this opportunity on our campus to the rising youth in the greater Atlanta community.”

Eli Kennedy, LPFI president and CEO, called STEM and technology “the engine of our community.”

“Children from African-American communities are tremendously underrepresented in these fields,” he said.

Moreover, the shortage of U.S. technology jobs has prompted some cities to use tax dollars as incentives for companies that bring in foreign workers.

A rapid growth of SMASH programs could one day make such efforts moot.

Morehouse offers a range of science and math degree programs, including computer science, physics and engineering. Campus officials hope that with three to four summers of exposure, some participants will choose to attend Morehouse.

That is already happening. Plus, the program seems to have tapped the millennial generation’s increasing fondness for science, no doubt nurtured by popular television shows such as “A.N.T. Farm,” “Lab Rats” and “iCarly.”

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Students don’t see themselves as nerds

Omar Cox, who will attend Tri-Cities High School, just southwest of Atlanta, in the fall, said he wants to attend Morehouse and eventually become a mechanical engineer.

“I want to be able to build and design cellphones,” said Cox, who participated in academic bowls through sixth grade.

At 6 feet tall, he also was the star on his Woodman Middle School basketball team.

Cox found out about the Pathways program from a school counselor.

“I really didn’t know what it was at first,” Cox said. “But once I actually went to the orientation and got to know the school and program, I got really excited about the opportunity it would provide for me.”

Cox said he never worried about the academic stereotyping, which typically has occurred with high-achieving African-American students.

“No one really saw me as nerd,” he said. “I just came off as an all-around person who just made good grades. I always enjoyed my schoolwork.”

Maryanna Sapp, who will attend Tucker High School about 15 miles northeast of downtown Atlanta in the fall, doesn’t have a problem if people stick her with the label of “nerd.”

“Most times being a nerd at my school isn’t all that bad,” she said. “There are some people who think it’s lame, but really, being a nerd is what makes the world go round.”

Sapp wants to be a chemical engineer and desires to attend Spelman or MIT.

Sapp said the science bug hit her because her father, now an independent furniture contractor, used to be a construction worker who collaborated with engineers.

Sapp, who has participated in robotics and science competitions since she was in fourth grade, learned about SMASH and Pathways from a science teacher.

“I expect to be exposed to different things in science that will make me think outside and beyond the box,” Sapp said.

Sapp said the program provides “a comfortable environment.”

“It’s like, you are not the only one involved in science. There are other kids interested in the same things I’m interested in.

“It builds teamwork skills,” she said. “It allows me to listen to other people and to use their ideas to solve a problem.”

Kennedy’s hope, in line LPFI’s mission, is that the SMASH Academy program will expand to 20 such programs across the country, including 10 at historically black colleges.

Kennedy, a Howard alum who has found prolonged success in technology recruitment and digital education, said Atlanta was a prime location to branch out to from the West Coast because of the area’s commitment to science and technology. The institute shares the cost of the program with the universities and technology companies.

Google and Genentech are among the sponsors of the Morehouse program, he said.

Kennedy cautioned against outsiders looking at the program as simply a domain of nerds and eggheads. The program’s rigorous application process, which includes essays, achievements and recommendations, looks at well-rounded students, many of whom “have an interest in math, science, technology and engineering.”

“And we try to harness that,” he said. “They need to be good at math, interested in STEM and want to impact their community.”

He said the program is thoughtful about “bringing in kids who are not really there yet.”

The program exposes the students to software engineers and industry leaders, to allow the students to “see themselves in similar positions,” he added.

Harnessing youthful talent

In the Morehouse program, the students will meet with researchers in life science and medical science and learn from community activists using plant science to bring urban farming to Georgia, according to site director Amour Carthy.

They will also work with robotics at the Invention Studio at Georgia Tech, visit current museum exhibits and engage in several on-campus activities that showcase what it means to think like a scientist, engineer, or mathematician.

The key to the training is developing “work ethic, rigor and public speaking,” Kennedy said.

“We find that a lot of students don’t know how to study,” Kennedy said.

The SMASH program also takes students from a range of economic backgrounds.

In one of the previous classes, Kennedy said, one student became homeless while in the program.

He is now a medical student at Brown University.

Students in the program won’t just sit in the classrooms doing math, Kennedy said. “It’s building virtual reality. Exposure to the different ways you can apply the math aptitude can light a fire.”

For most of the students, the Pathways and SMASH programs will be a step up from what they encounter at school, where some might not have adequate labs, the right courses or the ideal math and science teachers.

“And there is a bias within our education system against people of color,” Kennedy said.

“African-American boys and girls are often dissuaded from their curiosity in science and math,” Kennedy said. “We are totally committed to working with black and brown students.”

Kapor-Klein said, “STEM simply cannot and will not realize its potential for innovation if it does not accurately reflect the communities it serves.”

Preparing untapped talent

“We are preparing underrepresented students with untapped talent to be the change agents that will innovate, transform and impact the futures of their local communities and our nation.”

Morehouse, one of the most financially well-endowed historically black colleges, is paying for half of the enrichment program, one of LPFI’s stipulations.

Rice, the Morehouse site champion, also believed it was important, as a historically black college, to instill a “community attachment and community involvement” component so that students are “aware that there is a social mission associated” with their scientific knowledge.

“What they have to begin to figure out is how and what does the social justice component of your science look like,” Rice said.

“We want to make sure that as you see black folks in those roles as chemists and physicists – they are not just about the business of turning screws or implementing theorem,” Rice said.

“But it’s about doing it with the realization and awareness of what your position means to folks who look like you.”

David R. Squires is a writer, editor and digital journalist who has worked for the New York Times, Detroit Free Press, Cleveland Plain Dealer and St. Petersburg Times. He's also a former editor-in-chief of BlackVoices.com and BVQ magazine, a former Black Enterprise writer and editor and NUTribemagazine.com managing editor.