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Leveling the Playing Field in STEM for Underrepresented Youth

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Special to the Philanthropy Journal

Eli Kennedy Head ShotBy Eli Kennedy 

By the time high school student Jorge Avelar-Lopez completed SMASH Academy, he was named a Latinos on the Fast Track (LOFT) fellow, had built his own health mobile app and was invited to demo his app at the White House. Jorge accomplished all of this and more, all the while, growing up in a neighborhood of East Oakland where even walking to school five minutes away was too dangerous. Luckily, at SMASH, Jorge found his passion for computer programming. Today, Jorge is preparing for the next chapter of his life: pursuing an engineering degree at Stanford.

LPFI LogoJorge is only one example of the untapped genius that, when given the opportunity, can flourish in STEM. This is the impetus behind the work we do at the Level Playing Field Institute. In 2004, our organization set out to tackle the underrepresentation of people of color in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) by developing a program that addressed this problem from the beginning. Our solution was the Summer Math and Science Honors (SMASH) Academy, a three year, five week, STEM-focused college preparatory program for underrepresented high schools students of color and low-income beginning their 9th grade year. We partner with tech-focused universities to provide the program to the students in its community. Our current partners include UC Berkeley, Stanford, UCLA and more recently, UC Davis and Morehouse College in Atlanta.

technology ORIGINALThe current landscape for underrepresented and low-income students in STEM shows that hundreds of thousands of these students attend schools that are unable to nurture their genius and provide them with opportunity to pursue higher education, let alone a STEM career. In California, for example, nearly 75% of high schools with the highest percentage of underrepresented students offer no computer science courses. Less than 3% of these schools offer the AP Computer Science course, despite the fact that computer science proficiency is among one of the most important job skills in Silicon Valley and beyond. And across the nation, underrepresented students are far less likely to have quality instructors, access to technology, or exposure to STEM professionals needed to make a career in STEM possible.

SMASH addresses all of these problems.

students at board ORIGINALOur program is truly transformational because of our comprehensive approach. While SMASH offers year-round education via a Saturday academy, its apex is in the summer when all of the SMASH scholars descend upon a college campus for a 5–week residency. Students live in the dorms, work 12 hours a day and truly experience collegiate life. They take rigorous classes in mathematics, science, project-based engineering, and computer science to name a few. Classes are taught by highly qualified instructors who are often from similar backgrounds as the scholars, allowing for a deeper connection in the learning process.

hallway ORIGINALBut academics is just one piece of the puzzle. Networking is an essential skill that our scholars must develop. It’s important that our scholars meet people who look like them have success in the jobs they are seeking. Through programming like speakers’ series and networking nights, scholars are introduced to STEM professionals who have walked similar paths, offering students the opportunity to connect and build their professional Rolodex. Immersed in this environment, scholars gain a community that nurtures growth, perseverance, and transformation.

students ORIGINALSMASH is also unique because it is completely free of cost to the scholars and their parents for the duration of their participation. Historically, over 80% of SMASH scholars qualify for free and reduced lunch and nearly 75% of these students will be the first in their family to attend college. While many institutions may offer similar programs, they can cost thousands or even tens of thousands of dollars, making them accessible only to students from affluent families.

We are happy to say that the success of our program is unparalleled:

  • 100% of our scholars graduate high school.
  • 95% are enrolled or have completed their degree with 47% attended/attending Top 50 schools in the US
  • 74% enter STEM majors (By comparison, only 23% of all U.S. college freshmen declare STEM majors)

We attribute our success to a few things:

Research-based curriculum. We are deeply committed to research as a means of evaluating our programmatic efforts and implementing new curricula. Our research team collects and uses data to evaluate how to improve our program and how trends within the STEM sector impact our work.

Engagement through a social justice lens. Cultural relevance and social justice is interwoven in every element of our curriculum. Our pedagogical practices focus on decentralizing the “knower-knowee” relationship, encouraging critical thinking and giving contextual opportunities for rigor, and capitalizing on students’ experiences and knowledge to create relevance.

Focus on sustainable impact. We stay with our young scholars for 3 years and beyond. While hackathons and other programs that expose students to technology are impactful, those impacts are not sustainable. We are with our scholars for the foundational years of their lives and provide mentorship, curricula and familial fellowship that are difficult to replicate in a short amount of time. Living together for 5 weeks a year is a tremendous advantage in that regard.

students working 2 ORIGINALEvery year, we are forced to turn away around 75% of the students that apply for our SMASH programs across our sites. At the same time, we are constantly contacted by universities interested in bringing SMASH to their campuses. In response to this demand, we are planning to double our impact in the coming years by launching 5 new SMASH sites. This expansion began this year with the exciting additions of UC Davis and our first program outside of California at Morehouse College in Atlanta.

We are constantly learning, and with the expansion, hope to discover many other learnings that will help nonprofits and schools level the playing field so that all students, regardless of where they grew up, have an equal opportunity to thrive in STEM. Our work is especially crucial today as the conversation for diversity and inclusion in STEM grows. The future depends on having all walks of life represented in this space. Through SMASH, we are developing the next generation of innovators that will shape our nation’s future for the better.


Eli Kennedy is the Chief Executive Office of Level Playing Field Institute, is a nonprofit dedicated to eliminating barriers faced by students of color in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). For over a decade, Eli has worked to develop the STEM talent pipeline in underrepresented communities and improve educational systems.

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