The Level Playing Field Institute (www.lpfi.org) is an Oakland-based non-profit organization that operates two education programs for high-achieving, low-moderate income students of color: the Summer Math and Science Honors Academy (SMASH), and Summer Math and Science Honors Academy Prep (SMASH Prep). Additionally, (and connectedly) conducts research on inequity and bias in education and workplace contexts. LPFI is funded by private donors, foundations, and corporate giving; and, is currently expanding in exciting ways. LPFI is scaling the SMASH program to multiple college campuses in the next year and setting the goal for 25 SMASH sites by the year 2020.
The Summer Math and Science Honors (SMASH) Academy is a five week Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) residential academic acceleration program for motivated, high school students from underrepresented populations (African-American, Latino/Hispanic, South-East Asian and/or Pacific Islander and Native American), who have demonstrated an aptitude for science and math. The student participants are recruited from underserved communities throughout the Bay Area and Los Angeles county and are selected through a competitive application process. During the summer component, SMASH provides accelerated classes, laboratory experiments and exposure to STEM fields; the academic rigor is alloyed with a strong community experience in residential dorm living in order to introduce our scholars to a university environment. During the academic year, SMASH provides scholarship workshops, college counseling, and various community events and further exposure to STEM opportunities.
SMASH Program Goals
SMASH: Prep is a free, year-round Saturday academy that serves sixth to eighth grade African American males who have demonstrated both an aptitude and interest in math and science. Its curriculum is specifically focuses on preparing African-American males to be successful in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, which are projected to be the fastest growing and highest-paying occupations of the future, thus providing students and their families/communities critical opportunities for economic advancement. Moreover, by virtue of its additional focus on social justice and self-sufficiency, SMASH: Prep aims to support students in becoming not only scientists, but also active global citizens.
SMASH: Prep Academy Goals
Katia Garcia's Story - (SMASH Alum '10)
I moved to the United States from Mexico when I was four years old. My family moved into my grandmother's house where we lived with several other family members and my grandmother would take care of us while my parents worked. I attended public schools growing up until I was lucky enough to get an almost 100% scholarship to a private high school. It was during this time that I found out about SMASH.
I believe SMASH helped me gain confidence in many aspects of my life, not simply through my education. I was able to live away from home for the first time and while that was difficult at first because I didn't know anyone, the experience taught me so much about myself. It was largely due to this experience that I became the first member of my family to go to college.
My family was skeptical about the SMASH program at first because I had never been on my own before. However, after several days of going to class and making new friends I was able to get over my homesickness. It even came to the point where I didn't want to go home on the weekends and instead stayed on campus! SMASH helped me learn how to effectively manage my time because of the structure of SMASH. We had allotted study time, eating time, and structured free time. Some days we didn't finish with our coursework until around 9pm because we took a public speaking class. However, public speaking was easily one of the most useful classes I took at SMASH.
In the public speaking class I was able to gain confidence in my way of presenting myself and presenting material that I had learned. I'm a very shy person, but after having taken that public speaking course I became more confident in speaking in class and asking questions. I was eager to present class material during the presentations which is something that has been incredibly useful in my time at Emory.
My family also noticed my growth the most. They were able to see that I carried myself differently and with confidence. It made them feel better that during my time away I had grown into a more responsible young lady. Academically, I gained so much. The math and science courses I took during the summer were the same ones I would be taking the following year at my high school. During the school year, I would constantly refer to my notes from the summer. I felt much more confident in my performance in class because I'd had exposure to the material during the previous summer, whereas many of my classmates were just starting fresh.
The material I learned during the summer typically covered everything I would learn in the first half of an academic year. By the time I was done with my first semester in my math and science courses I had already mastered the material. This always made my second semester much easier because, unlike some of my classmates, I was not struggling to keep up with concepts from the first semester.
Through SMASH I also learned about positive risk taking behavior which is one of the reasons I am at Emory University right now. During those three summers, I was able to realize that I could accomplish things on my own without the help of my parents (although I knew I always had their support). I was able to discover the adventurous side in me and not limit myself to going to school in the bay area.
Prior to being a part of SMASH I wanted to attend college in California because that's where my family was. However, after learning that Emory had a great nursing school (top ten in the country!) I knew that's where I had to be, especially if I wanted to be taken seriously by family in terms of my responsibility and level of maturity. While my family was unsure when I told them my first choice was Emory (because it was all the way on the other side of the country) upon listening to my reasons for wanting to attend they understood that I wanted the opportunity to learn and grow on my own. My family had also already experienced SMASH where they saw me complete 3 summers on my own.
Being the first person in my family to attend college is huge and to be doing it across the country away from all of my family is an even bigger deal. These days, my family is incredibly supportive and even my little cousins look up to me and ask me about college and tell me how they want to go away for college as well.
I still believe in the SMASH program. I know that it's not only one of the best summer academies out there but also a place where students learn about themselves and gain even more motivation to succeed especially in the STEM fields.
Anthony Ninthara's Success Story (Current SMASH Scholar graduating class '14)
My mother and father moved to the United States from Thailand and Laos before my two older brothers and I were born. Growing up, we moved around a lot, and after some time we finally settled in Merced, California. We lived with my grandmother for about six or seven years after I was born. My parents were constantly working back then but my brothers and I always managed to have fun together while they were at work.
My father, my mother, and my two older brothers all support me equally, and they all believed in my potential to succeed, which is why I had the motivation to sign up for SMASH. If it wasn't for my brother, Max, and my father I don't think I would have even made it past the sign up process so I am thankful that they believed in me throughout the whole process. Of my friends, I believe my friends Kaitlyn, Amina, Riordan, Rachel, and Whitney supported me the most when I was signing up for SMASH. They always encouraged me to do my best and believed that I was able to succeed and get into SMASH. If I didn't have my amazing friends and family who believed in my potential I don't think I would have been able to succeed and get as far as I did, not only in SMASH, but in life altogether.
The SMASH program isn't just another summer program for high school students. The staff at each site really help the students who attend SMASH achieve their own personal goals and so much more. The goals we high school students set are brought to light in front of us, and we are then guided in how we are going to pursue them. The staff also helps the scholars learn the skills we need to use in daily living situations as well as those we will need to use for the rest of our high school and college careers. All of these skills will eventually carry on to our jobs later on in our lives. After those first five weeks of SMASH were over, I felt more prepared for college, and life overall. I actually looked forward to and anticipated my future and right now, I hope that my future after SMASH plays out so that I can attend a prestigious college and major in Biomedical Engineering, Computer Science, or a medical major. I am interested in helping society right now and one of the main professions that would allow me to really help people is the medical profession, although computer science also helps out due to many other professions requiring the help of computer science.
I believe that the most valuable aspect of SMASH is how encouraging all the staff is of the scholars, and the peer to peer conversations they have with us and each other. It is that teamwork I enjoy overall and that support which edges all of us towards our goal of a STEM degree. I believe that when we see someone of color with a STEM degree, other people of color will be more inclined to follow in that person's footsteps and the cycle of everyone following in the footsteps of a person they admire continues. This helps us to have more doctors, professors, physicists and other STEM professions of the sort. All of this, in turn, helps the economy grow and helps with unemployment.
I believe anything can happen in the future, but what happens in the future cannot happen without the support from people in your past and present. As the holiday season approaches and the next year rolls around I would like all of you who read this to remember a time when someone believed in you, and be thankful for that. I am thankful that through the SMASH program, I have met staff and friends from the USC and UCLA sites who all have similar dreams. SMASH is probably the greatest investment of time I have made in my high school career, and possibly the greatest support I have ever received in my lifetime. As a SMASH scholar from a small town, I am glad to have the support of so many people now. The SMASH program and LPFI have noble causes for people of color who want to go into STEM majors, and for that and the mission they pursue I am thankful.