SMASH, a program that gives low-income high schoolers of color a chance to study math and science in some of the best-equipped academic institutions in California, recently rolled out a branch at Stanford. I had the chance to visit the intense summer program a few weeks ago, and was very impressed by what founders Freada and Mitch Kapor have put in motion here.
The Kapors, who founded the Level Playing Field Institute in 2001, got the inspiration for SMASH at a 2003 fundraiser they attended in Andover, MA, for a program called (MS)2. (MS)2 brought 100 disadvantaged African American, Latino, and Native American students from select public schools across the U.S. to highly elite prep school Phillips Academy for the summer. The program, which had changed the lives of hundreds of children, showed the students what they could achieve if they worked hard. Given the program’s results, the Kapors didn’t hesitate to make a generous donation.
But when Freada asked how many of the children were from California, she was disappointed, but not surprised, by the answer.
“After a bit of shuffling and staring at shoes,” she told me during my visit to the Stanford program in July, “I was told ‘none’ with an explanation that they had longstanding relationships with several high schools but none west of Chicago or Texas.”
California isn’t considered a priority given the popular myth that Silicon Valley is a meritocracy – a phenomenon I’ve previously highlighted. Blacks and Hispanics constitute only 1.5 percent and 4.7 percent respectively of the Valley’s computer workers — even lower than the national averages of 7.1 percent and 5.3 percent.
The Silicon Valley elite rarely get to interact with minorities, so stereotypes get propagated, which only serves to make the problem worse. Venture capitalists invest in people who fit the “patterns” of successful entrepreneurs that they know, and hiring managers bring in more of the same types of people they have seen achieve success — in other words: people like them.
Indeed, during the July visit, the Kapors recalled an encounter between Mitch and one of his young Latino colleagues a few years ago. He asked if Mitch invented Lotus 1-2-3 (Mitch founded Lotus Software, and it was acquired by IBM for $3.5 billion in 1995). Mitch said he was puzzled as to how someone in their 20s might know of a software program that was a blockbuster in the 1980s. He explained that his mother cleaned office buildings at night in Sacramento and would sometimes take him to work and let him play on the computer while she cleaned toilets and emptied corporate employees’ trash cans. For him, he said, this was the symbol of another life — of being successful. The interaction left Mitch in tears.
“How many Silicon Valley elites have ever had a conversation with the people who clean their offices,” he asked me, “do they see their kids as having the potential to be top talent in any field?”
This motivated the Kapors to establish SMASH — the Summer Math and Science Honors Academy at UC Berkeley. They established SMASH through the Level Playing Field Institute. While inspired by the (MS) 2 program, SMASH is not a replica of it. Instead, SMASH focuses on providing project-based learning and integrating science and math into contemporary issues rather than an intensive curriculum oriented towards standardized tests.
SMASH provides full funding for high-achieving, low-income high school students of color to spend time on campus for five weeks during the summers after their 9th, 10th, and 11th grade years. They are immersed in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), conduct experiments and participate in group discussions. They are taught by leading scholars and provided access to the most advanced research equipment. Then they are provided with year-round academic support, including SAT prep, college counseling, and other support to ensure their academic success.
The results speak for themselves: 100 percent of SMASH graduates have been accepted to competitive four-year colleges, and the overwhelming majority persist as STEM majors, according to Freada. Kids from under-performing public schools who are eligible for free lunches have often never heard of MIT or Middlebury or Morehouse, but those are campuses now populated with SMASH alumni.
SMASH has grown since 2004 from one site at UC Berkeley to four sites throughout the state, including the one at Stanford. Another site is opening at the University of Chicago in 2013, and the program’s organizers are in discussions with 18 other campuses to expand nationally. The goal? Twenty-five sites by 2020.
The biggest limiting factor is funding. The program is expensive, and the universities — even those with large endowments, such as Stanford — still charge the startup nonprofit full price for room and board. It’s the single, greatest line item in the SMASH budget.
SMASH has a rigorous and evolving curriculum, experiments with blended learning, including MySciHigh, which won first place at a recent Startup Weekend. The program also has a detailed operations manual for launching new sites. A STEM teacher training academy is also in its sights as the program explores how to scale its success.
When I visited SMASH at Stanford in July and talked to many of the participating students. They called the program “life-changing” and talked about how it made them determined to become an engineer or a scientist.
Maria Castillo, a senior from Richmond High in California said the program inspired her to become an engineer so she could help solve the energy crisis. SMASH, she said, “inspired me to speak my opinions no matter what other people think.”
Hi Vo, a senior at Del Mar High School in San Jose, gushed about how excited he was about learning math and science because of the great scientists he met at Stanford. Daryle Alums, a student at KIPP King Collegiate in San Lorenzo, Calif., said SMASH got him interested in computer science and that he had started a company with his friends.
I have little doubt that these students’ excitement and the sense of hope they developed is infectious. We just need thousands more like them returning to schools around the country to inspire the others.
[Editor's note: A version of this story previously appeared on WashingtonPost.com]
Vivek Wadhwa is a fellow at the Rock Center for Corporate Governance at Stanford University and is affiliated with several other universities. Read more about Vivek Wadhwa’s affiliations.