SMASH Academy and SMASH Alumni Outcomes: Looking Back and Going Forward

By Frieda McAlear, Research Associate

When Summer Math and Science Honors Academy (SMASH) alumni Ingrid Verastegui graduated from high school in 2010 in Modesto, she wanted to major in Civil Engineering at the University of the Pacific (UOP) with the intention of becoming a Structural Engineer. Her interest in hydraulics and environmental engineering blossomed in her first two years in college so she changed her concentration to Water Resources and Environmental Engineering.

Last summer she graduated with her Bachelor’s Degree in Civil Engineering and Master’s Degree in Engineering Science, and soon after began working as a Design Engineer at EN Engineering.

Ingrid’s story is not unusual for the Level Playing Field’s SMASH Academy and Alumni programs. Data from our 2015 SMASH program evaluation report and alumni data brief show that a vast majority (79%) of LPFI’s SMASH high school seniors intend to major in a STEM subject in college and 74% do major in a STEM subject in their Freshman year. Sixty-three percent of SMASH alumni persist through to obtaining their Bachelor’s degree in a STEM subject.

These figures stand in stark contrast to the severe national underrepresentation of students of color in STEM college majors, graduate studies and careers. According to a 2014 policy brief by the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering, just 4.6% of all engineering Master’s degrees in 2012 were awarded to Latino/as like Ingrid[1]; just 4% of all engineering Bachelor’s degrees were awarded to African-American students in 2011[2].

When asked about what role SMASH played in her choices, Ingrid replied, “SMASH helped me develop a stronger self-confidence in my potential as a Latina and woman in the STEM field. The rigorous math and science classes allowed me to learn of my abilities for understanding and applying physics and math concepts. Group participation, presentations and public speaking classes taught me to have a voice in the community and know that my opinion matters. I am the first woman in my family to graduate with an engineering degree. No one really had talked to me about engineering. Now looking back at why I chose engineering and felt very confident in my decision is due to the people I met at SMASH.”

More than just academics

LPFI’s program evaluation data reflect the part that SMASH plays in scholars’ journeys toward a career in STEM. Variables gleaned from education research literature measure scholars’ attitudinal and knowledge gains across a breadth of topics from Computer Science knowledge to social justice orientation each summer during the three-year program.

This year’s evaluation data suggest that the areas where scholars made the strongest gains during of the program include: (1) knowledge and cultural relevance of Computer Science, (2) college and financial aid application knowledge and preparedness, (3) access to STEM peer and role model support networks and (4) scholar identity[3].

Two of these gains were made in non-academic topics, testimony to the strength of creating community support systems for SMASH scholars and their families throughout the three year residential summer program. In open-ended questions in surveys and during focus groups, scholars tend to describe their peers in the program as their “best friends” or “family,” their instructors as mentors and role models, and their campus community a “second home.” In fact, when asked about important aspects of SMASH, over 60% of alumni cited the social and communication skills as having a lasting impact from the program on their adult lives.

A brief glance at the academic assessment scores in the 2015 SMASH program evaluation report (pages 8-13) provides an in-depth look at the metrics behind the success of the academic programs at SMASH. Notable gains were made in all of the science assessment scores (Biology for first year scholars, Chemistry for second year scholars, and Physics for third year scholars), with an impressive 98% of scholars demonstrating an increase in their Physics scores over the course of the program. Eighty-eight percent of scholars also increased their math assessment scores, with an overwhelming 96% of Algebra II assessment takers improving their scores at the end of the program.

Looking forward

At the early stages in her career, Ingrid appreciates her experiences at SMASH. “I am thankful for the opportunities and life long lessons learned at SMASH. I can definitely say SMASH was an important influence in my professional and personal development. Furthermore, I continue to be motivated and inspired by my SMASH peers and staff whom are pursuing bigger goals each day. As for my next career goals include my professional engineering license and a second Master’s Degree or Doctorate Degree.”

The SMASH 2014 cohort marked the first time in LPFI’s history that the number of program alumni outnumbered the number of scholars in SMASH (266 scholars in SMASH/277 alumni). Accordingly, LPFI is investing more resources in SMASH seniors during their transitions from secondary to university academics and from college to careers. Building on the work of Dr. Shantina Jackson, LPFI’s former Director of Alumni Relations, James Sarria, current Alumni Partnerships and Programs Director, will be connecting with SMASH alumni parents, businesses, local agencies and other nonprofits that are passionate about equity in STEM to create and leverage the opportunities that underrepresented students of color need to succeed in STEM careers.

Stay tuned in 2016 for ways to get involved and to support this important program!

1. National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering (NACME), 2014. Latinos in Engineering.
2. National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering (NACME), 2014. African Americans in Engineering.
3. Though these were the most prominent statistically significant gains in our evaluation metrics, the majority of the other variables tested demonstrated strong self-reported scores both before and after the program, possibly indicating the consistently high level of motivation in the 2015 SMASH scholar cohorts across sites and ages.