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Starting after his freshman year of high school, Amiri McKinnon packed his bags every summer and left his family home in Los Angeles for a five-week stay at the University of California, Los Angeles. McKinnon lived in the dorms and took classes alongside other teenagers interested in science, technology, engineering and math. At no cost to him or his family, the program even provided him with his own laptop to use for his coursework.
The program, called SMASH, helped McKinnon realize he could harness his being “good at science,” make friends and eventually move out of L.A. After three years in the program, McKinnon was accepted to Morehouse College in Atlanta, a historically Black men’s college, where he is now a sophomore studying applied physics and mechanical engineering on a full-ride scholarship from SMASH.
SMASH is one of many organizations across the country working to eliminate barriers so that Black, Latino, low-income and first-generation students can earn college degrees and careers in science, technology, engineering and math. It starts with students after ninth grade and continues to support them throughout high school, while they consider post-graduation options and while they are in college or launching careers.
The various programs take different approaches to include students in STEM education and make it more accessible, but they seem to agree on one thing: starting with students early.
McKinnon said SMASH’s summer program transformed how he thought about his future. Without it, he said, he probably would have shied away from a science-based career and he might have never left his hometown.
“There are so many people who have potential, but the system is not designed for them. And there’s never been higher demand for this technical talent.”Michael Ellison, CEO of CodePath, a nonprofit working to diversify the computer science field
It was also valuable socially, he said. He made friends, some of whom are now his roommates, and learned how to navigate a college campus. And it was valuable professionally: He went to SMASH-sanctioned networking events, where he passed out his business card to local business owners and industry leaders, and eventually earned an internship with Raytheon Technologies, an aerospace and defense company.
Though the STEM workforce has grown exponentially over the last several decades, opportunities have not been distributed evenly. A 2018 report from Pew Research found that while Black people made up 11% of the county’s workforce, they represented about 9% of the STEM workforce. Latinos represented about 16% of the country’s workforce, but only about 7% of the STEM workforce. There are also gender discrepancies: Women are overrepresented in health and life science jobs (which includes healthcare jobs), but underrepresented in computer science and engineering, Pew found.
“There are so many people who have potential, but the system is not designed for them,” said Michael Ellison, founder and CEO of CodePath, a nonprofit working to diversify the computer science field. “And there’s never been higher demand for this technical talent. You have an imperative.”
Ellison said that while starting early is ideal, it’s not the only way to invite more people into STEM. Making sure you have an approach that builds confidence and gives learners a sense of belonging can go a long way, even for people who have long been out of school, he said.
SMASH, a nonprofit organization founded 19 years ago, has seen more than 1,000 of its students graduate from college, 79% of whom earned a degree in a STEM subject, according to Danielle Rose, CEO of the SMASH program. The program is currently serving about 1,400 students.
“As someone who works in the tech sector, I see day in and day out that diversity of the workforce leads to better products and better organization.”Shaina Horowitz, vice president of product and programs at Newlab, a technology incubator working with New York City public school students
Rose, a mechanical engineer by training, said she knows from experience that being Black in the pursuit of a STEM degree can be isolating.
“Your community, your network is going to be incredibly critical to your success and your ability to persist in an environment that may not be necessarily designed with you in mind,” Rose said.
“Tech in particular has become as essential, it may sound hyperbolic, but it’s as essential as the air that we breathe,” Rose said. “Technology is directing our daily lives as much as it’s driving our daily decisions. And it’s having a large impact for the better or worse.”
Students from underrepresented communities have just as much to contribute to the future of technology as students from dominant groups, but they haven’t been given the same opportunities, she said.
The summer residential program, the alumni program and the internship placements aren’t cheap, but they are valuable investments, Rose said. SMASH they started small – initially only at the University of California, Berkeley – and then expanded quickly over the past four years, she said. It’s funded by a combination of private, corporate and philanthropic donors and support from university partners, Rose said.
Meanwhile, in New York City, the Department of Education partnered with a private tech incubator called Newlab on the HE³AT Program, which shares the goal of funneling more young students into STEM fields.
“As someone who works in the tech sector, I see day in and day out that diversity of workforce leads to better products and better organization,” Shaina Horowitz, vice president of product and programs at Newlab, said. “What we build represents and reflects our biases and constraints, so making sure there’s a real diversity of individuals contributing to the STEM fields just makes for better business all around.”
Students spend one school day per month at Newlab in Brooklyn, learning about the intersection of STEM and entrepreneurship, and being mentored while they work on a year-long project on an issue they are passionate about. The curriculum each month is designed to help nudge them along and troubleshoot any issues they run into. Horowitz said students have pursued projects from designing an off-grid energy system for a community in Yemen to improving online mental health services for students.
“Your community, your network is going to be incredibly critical to your success and your ability to persist in an environment that may not be necessarily designed with you in mind.”Danielle Rose, CEO of SMASH, a program to help students progress in STEM fields
Michael Prayor, superintendent of Brooklyn South high schools in the New York City Department of Education, said the program gives students the opportunity to learn outside the classroom and meet people they might not otherwise meet, rather than seeing these people once at a career day event at school.
Prayor said he also hopes the program can help students reframe the way they think about college. Instead of applying with a vague idea of their interests and career goals, he hopes they’ll know what they want and be better equipped to achieve their goals.
The HE³AT Program launched in the fall of 2019 with ninth grade students and has recently expanded to start with students as early as sixth grade. Because the first cohorts won’t be through high school for awhile, the effectiveness of the program remains to be seen.
At Barnard College, the women’s college of Columbia University, president Sian Beilock has also made an effort to reach out to students as early as possible. Instead of designing difficult introductory courses for the STEM subjects to weed students out, Beilock said Barnard tries to make the classes as engaging as possible, introduce students to all the possibilities of working in STEM, and invite them in.
She said students at Barnard have told her they thought they were bad at math, and then they’ve surprised themselves.
“You often label yourself or people label you, you’re good at this or you’re not good at this,” she said. But experiencing a small coding workshop or introductory organic chemistry lab can help students break through those expectations, she said, and “rethink what you think your limits are.”
This story about young students in STEM classes was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our higher education newsletter.