Education

Math and science program at UC Davis recruits underrepresented students

High school students study the fibers of newspaper clips and onion peels under microscopes in their biology class. For their next class they will look at living organisms.
High school students study the fibers of newspaper clips and onion peels under microscopes in their biology class. For their next class they will look at living organisms. Photos provided by the Summer Math and Science Honors Academy program

For more than a decade, the Summer Math and Science Honors Academy has recruited low-income and minority high school students to participate in a five-week program of science and technology classes at some of the state’s top colleges.

After its inaugural program at UC Berkeley in 2004, the academy expanded to Stanford University and UCLA – and recently launched a program at UC Davis.

Eli Kennedy, head of the Level Playing Field Institute, an Oakland-based nonprofit that supports the summer academy, commonly known as SMASH, said UC Davis was chosen because it has attracted many academy graduates, and the Sacramento region is a growing hub for companies that offer jobs in science, technology, engineering and math.

“We are looking for communities that are trying to build out their STEM sector and have this need for a really strong pipeline of folks who are diverse and come from low-income communities and are looking to be inclusive as they grow their economies,” Kennedy said.

Kennedy said he was motivated to join Level Playing Field after seeing the high retention rates of the scholars and watching most of the students go to college and enter STEM fields upon graduation.

Upon arriving in the summer, students form a supportive community and strive toward common goals. The bond they form in the dorms is as lighthearted as summer camp friendships, but they spur each other to graduate from high school, excel at four-year universities and pursue graduate programs, students said.

“I try so hard to maintain my GPA. Sometimes I think, ‘Why can’t I just be like those other people and just not care as much as I do now,’ ” said Madisen Green, one of the scholars. “I get tired, but I’m working toward something that I know is going to better me.”

Green, of Fairfield, said she is glad to be an example of two underrepresented groups in the tech sector as a minority and a woman. She said the SMASH program has given her more freedom and motivation to choose the future she desires than she would have had at home.

The varied curriculum gives students exposure to computer science, biology and other subjects colleges are expecting students to take. Because students come from different high schools, instructors try to give more individual attention to ensure that no one falls behind.

“Our class is a mix,” Kennedy said. “People that are doing really well … and students that haven’t yet tapped their potential.”

Marjorie Kirk: 916-321-1012, @marjorie_kirk

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