SMASH Illinois, a Free STEM Program for Students of Color Launches
STUDENTS | August 1, 2019
SMASH Illinois, a Free STEM Program for Students of Color Launches

In a large classroom on the campus of Illinois Tech, 35 high school sophomores gather around the monitor. A group has just finished presenting their augmented reality app prototype.  A student poses a question to the class. “Is anyone good at manipulating 3D objects?” 

Another asks if anyone can help with animation. These students are the first cohort to participate in SMASH Illinois, a new free STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) five-week summer program, specifically targeted for underrepresented high school students of color.

They come from schools across Illinois, including CPS. 

All of their classes are structured to include peer review and it’s encouraged by teachers that they partner with those who’ve already mastered a particular skill. This ensures that every student is learning. 

Each day they practice their presentation skills by standing in front of the class and updating the group on their progress. Facilitators guide the questions, offering constructive criticism. This is all practice for the big day. At the close of the program next Friday, they will share their final projects with family and friends. 

The mission of “SMASH Illinois, powered by CPASS Foundation,” is to close the gap in STEM for those students and encourage them to pursue STEM careers. SMASH Illinois partnered with Illinois Tech, Southern Illinois University Carbondale (SIUC), and the CPASS Foundation, an organization that serves students in the state with pathways and access through STEM programs. 

Tracie Screven, the site director for SMASH Illinois, said that she knows firsthand what kinds of obstacles people of color are sometimes faced with in the workforce. She worked for a corporate food company.

“For 16 years I continuously had to figure things out on my own with limited support from mentors, coaches and/or champions,” said Screven. ” I had to fight for myself, knock down obstacles just to continue to be in that environment as a woman of color.”

That’s why she wants to make sure that more students of color take advantage of SMASH. She personally visited schools earlier this year to share details about the program during the recruitment phase.

“The social justice piece, along with the networking and mentoring, and putting them in front of professionals that look like them, is exactly what these kids need, and it’s what I didn’t have,” said Screven. 

SMASH is a national organization and SMASH Illinois is the eighth site of the SMASH Academy program.

THE PROGRAM

A typical day for the inaugural class begins with an early morning wake up call at 6 a.m. By 7:30 a.m. they are eating breakfast and then they take half an hour to participate in a community circle. This gives them time to reflect and mentally prepare for the day. Afterwards, they’re in their STEM workshop working in small groups for the next three hours. The students have been developing A.R. app prototypes through a social justice lens. 

At the beginning of the summer their teams were tasked with identifying a problem in their community that relates to one of three areas: Urban Planning, Medical and Health Sciences, or Education. The goal of the A.R. app is to help solve that issue. 

In the afternoons, every Tuesday and Thursday, they separate by gender, rotating between a computer science class, where they’re designing a website and learning HTML, CSS and Java. While one group is there, another is in math class, one that meets them on their level. When they return next summer, they’ll advance. 

The program requires a three-year commitment, which means this cohort will continue to return for the next two summers. They live on campus and their days, weekends included, are full of classes, studying, activities, scheduled meals, and more. They do everything together, forming their own community. 

For many, if not all of the students, this is their first time being away from their families for so long and visits aren’t allowed. That was difficult at first for Back of the Yards High School sophomore, Andrea Torres.

“The summer has been going really well,” said the 15-year-old Brighton Park resident, “but it’s a different experience. I’ve never been away from home so coming here has opened my eyes to new horizons and has helped me [work on] feeling more comfortable with who I am.”

Screven said the team works hard at making students feel comfortable and safe, which is why twice a day they incorporate group reflection.

This is a STEM-based program, she said, yet, “it’s beyond STEM, it’s holistic,” she explained. 

On Monday, Wednesday and Friday they attend “To+Through,” a college success class to prepare them for that next chapter.

Guests have also come to speak to the students, like a hair care specialist who brought products and shared healthy hair tips with the young women. The students have participated in networking nights and have heard from professionals throughout the summer too. 

Screven said that it’s important that she and her team focus on more than the academic side. 

“I really understand how important the exposure part is for these kids,” she said. “The networking nights and speaker series, just everything outside of the academic side is still so important.”

They explore topics like self-identity and how to navigate different environments. “There’s nothing taboo at SMASH,” said Screven.

THE EXPERIENCE

For students like Jaylen Lewis, a 16-year-old Roseland resident, participating in SMASH Illinois is a completely new experience, one he’s grateful for.

“I thank Ms. Tracie for giving me this opportunity,” said the Corliss High School student. “My mom says that she’s a guardian angel.”

The students are in week four of the summer program and Lewis said he’s already seen positive changes. He’s gotten more confident in public speaking. Living and learning with this cohort has been empowering too, he said. 

“This program helps us academically and socially,” Lewis explained. “It’s good being surrounded by people who want to succeed in life. We’re all here for one thing, to be successful.”

That’s exactly what Torres said she’s trying to accomplish.

“I want to become an engineer,” she said. “I want to do rocket science because I want to work for NASA one day.”

She’s already on her school’s robotics team and said that when her physics teacher shared the application two days before the deadline, she knew she had to apply.

“It’s a STEM program and I really wanted more science and math and engineering,” Torres said. “I’m not really good at math and here they’re really helping me develop those math skills.”

Although the program has been going well, Torres said she had to adapt in the beginning.

“I like that I get to be with different types of people, but it was such a big culture shock [at first] because I’m used to speaking Spanish and sometimes I would add Spanish words when having a full-blown conversation,” she said.

One thing she’s been able to do, however, is create awareness around her Mexican cultural roots. 

For example, during one of their STEM workshop days, Torres can be heard gently correcting a peer’s Spanish. The class has shown enthusiasm in learning her language, which she said she likes.

Fenger High School student, Mikhalia Milam, also said she appreciates the exposure to different cultures, religions and backgrounds, something she doesn’t get at her predominantly African-American school. She said she’s becoming more “open-minded.” 

Prior to joining the program, Milam said she was considering studying business in college, but now she’s become more interested in engineering. 

The goal is to continue getting more and more students interested in STEM fields, said organizers. Next year, they hope to recruit 45 new students, in addition to the current 35. Each year, the program will continue to grow. 

“In three years we’ll be a full site with around 125 kids,” said Screven. “I’m so excited. This is my dream job.”

Next year’s application will be available in November. Learn more by visiting SMASH.org