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UCLA summer program is a SMASHing success

LOS ANGELES — Students from high schools throughout Los Angeles were applauded by family members and teachers during UCLA’s SMASH Graduation and Recognition Ceremony July 29.

SMASH, which stands for Summer Math and Science Honors Academy, is a college preparatory, free-of-charge program that places high school students of color on a university campus and immerses them in five weeks of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

Over the course of three summers, students attend a variety of STEM classes including design thinking, computer sciences, SAT prep in physics, chemistry and biology, and other non-STEM related elective courses, like this year’s African American and Latino studies class.

In one STEM class this year, students merged their learning of computer science with research about contagious diseases.

“The idea was that how do you study and look at these things [like contagious diseases] and how do you help communities with response to those things,” lead SMASH instructor Vicente Washington said. “So there’s a degree of activism with what they’re doing.”

The ultimate mission, he added, “is to produce a student that’s very well adjusted and can deal with a lot of situations and be able to contribute or help their communities in some way.”

Third-year SMASH scholar and incoming senior Adan Martinez constructs the base for a wind turbine. (Photo by Dorany Pineda)

Not only does this put students in roles they’re not accustomed to, but it also gives them a skill set they can take with them, Washington said.

For Rebeka Begashaw, a home-schooled junior, learning to be a leader was what she will take away from her experiences at SMASH.

“I feel like I’ve gained a lot of leadership skills and I also learned how to work,” Begashaw said. “I also learned about different opportunities in college, like different scholarships and SAT skills.”

She added that among the things she enjoyed most about SMASH was meeting new people and spending time with friends that she has met in the program. Begashaw dreams of being a software engineer and attending Stanford University or UCLA.

Kelly Medina, a second-year scholar with SMASH and an incoming junior at Lynwood High School, said that the opportunities the program offers are what she liked the most.

“I love all the opportunities they offer,” Medina said. “Learning about STEM and the college prep they have us do. I like that it brings together communities of color, and with them different points of view. It’s improved my people skills for sure, and I like it because it’s better than doing nothing all summer.”

She said the coolest thing she has done so far was build a robotic arm with arduinos, or microcontrollers, a project she did last year. Medina said she wants to attend Occidental College because former President Barack Obama went there. She’s undecided on her major, but is deciding between architecture, carpentry and math.

But the students aren’t the only ones who seemed happy with the program. Wanda Scoggins, parent of a first-year scholar from Marshall Fundamental School in Pasadena, also loved the program.

“[SMASH] is amazing. For five weeks, I feel like it’s really packed with a lot of academic enrichment for [our son], which is awesome,” Scoggins said. “It’s very interactive and it’s really catered to his interests. … This is a really good opportunity for him to have a pseudo college experience.”

And for Rico and Zaide Figuerres, parents of a second-year scholar from Centennial High School in Corona, the college experience is also something they were really drawn to when they looked at the SMASH program.

“I think having [the program] on campus is really amazing,” Zaide said. “Because then they get to experience what it’s like here. It gives them a goal like ‘this is the school I want to go to or this is the type of school I want to go to.’

“They’re away from their parents so it teaches them some independence, what to expect when they’re away, so when they do go away they’re not shocked or have a higher chance of failing because they’re not quite sure how to be on their own, or how to talk to people or ask for help.”

It teaches them how to survive in college in addition to the STEM background they receive, she added.

“It’s a nice team environment as well,” Rico said. “[Students] get different ideas to conceive and different perspectives on what they are researching or doing and building.”

For Alexander Van Name, a third-year SMASH instructor and STEM educator for nearly 20 years, it’s building self-esteem and visions of the future that make programs like SMASH so important for students of color.

“You want to show [underrepresented students] that this environment is an environment they can belong in. You transform their vision of what’s possible simply by them living on this campus as they are taking these classes,” Van Name said.

This is the sixth summer that UCLA has hosted SMASH and its fourth cohort graduation. What began in 2004 at UC Berkeley has since expanded to Stanford University, UC Davis, and its first out-of-state location, Moorehouse College in Atlanta.

During the school year, SMASH students attend monthly STEM academic programming and workshops at their host campus, where they work on SAT preparation, receive college counseling and attend financial aid workshops, among other activities.