SMASH Scholars Take A “Turn Down For What?!” Attitude Toward STEM

By SMASH Instructor, Jennifer Arguello

SMASH_Stanford1“Turn down for what?!” shouted SMASH scholars during a town hall at the beginning of the summer program. This pop culture anthem quickly became the theme for the program, and is meant to describe the scholars’ unbridled creativity and enthusiasm, of which could not and should not be controlled.

SMASH is a five-week summer program housed on college campuses that provides rigorous STEM classes to students from underserved and under-resourced communities. SMASH values these diverse backgrounds in our scholars and considers them assets that make them even more civic-minded scientists, engineers, and techies. Hence, in an academic sense we encourage them to “turn up!” not “turn down” their personalities.

I saw these unique and powerful personalities throughout the summer as I taught computer science. This class covered three major topics: Data Footprints/Mining, Mobile App Development, and Data Analysis. Within the data mining module, scholars had many “A-ha” moments around the amount of data the Internet harvests from them and uses for profit. At the same time, they realized they were in control of their data footprint and how much data they put out there to be mined.

Our work in mobile app development ensured our scholars did not miss out on the fun of video games during the summer. One of the projects was to create a mobile game using MIT’s App Inventor platform. The scholars learned the process of design thinking and storyboarding before creating fun and exciting games such as “TetrisPong” and even multi-player games.

Finally, for the last module in data analytics, we delved into the snacking life of a SMASH scholar. Using snacking data, the scholars were tasked to create a product pitch. In the last week, my class transformed from SMASH scholars to startup founders becoming part of SMASH Stars Accelerator. Each team consisted of a hustler, hacker, and designer or CEO, CTO, and Chief Creative Officer. The accelerator ended in a demo day with guest judges and scholars investing play money in their favorite companies. The top contenders were Munch Bed, a refrigerator in the bed so you never need to get up and never get hot in bed, and TidBit, a snack recommendation service already in partnerships with a fitness band company in their same class.

As amazing as our in class time was, computer science is not just about content within the classroom, but also understanding what is happening in computer science outside the classroom. Our scholars were lucky to have that experience as well with several guest speakers coming from the Kapor Center, Google, Facebook, Twitter and others. This gave the scholars the opportunity to talk tech with people in the field. These meetings were even more meaningful given the recent release of diversity data by many of these same companies. The scholars were able to have important conversations around the lack of diversity at tech companies. In turn, engaging with such bright young folks gave the guest speakers a lot of hope that their workplace would some day represent the communities they came from. Along with guest speakers, I brought in gadgets such at Google Glass, Google’s virtual reality Cardboard app, and Sphero the robotic ball.

In addition to teaching Computer Science, I co-facilitated the engineer design challenges. This consisted of engineering design activities followed by several weeks of tinkering with Arduino kits to create a final project at the end of the summer. Many SMASH scholars said this was their favorite class. I heard several times that the class was “really hard, but a lot of fun.” We combined creativity, discovery, programming, and electronics. Final projects ranged from mood lamps to colorful chandeliers.

We closed off the summer with a fieldtrip for the female scholars to Box and a program-wide recognition event that honored the graduating class of SMASH.

All in all it was a wonderful summer and I hope the scholars go back to their regular schools and maintain the “Turn down for what?!” mindset.

See the Kapor Center blog post