CARBONDALE — On Saturday morning, leaders from SIU Carbondale and state lawmakers gathered bright and early at the Student Center to give a warm and effusive welcome to a special group of guests: 35 of the brightest black and brown young people in the state.
Over and over, the speakers at the lectern expressed their honor and gratitude for the students’ presence.
“Thank you for including SIU,” said Chancellor John Dunn. “We will do you proud.”
The fanfare was for the first cohort of the Illinois SMASH Academy, a nationally-recognized summer program for high-achieving high schoolers who are interested in science and technology, but come from backgrounds where STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) opportunities are scarce.
For 5 weeks each summer until they graduate high school, the students will attend an all-expenses-paid STEM summer camp.
Based at the Illinois Institute of Technology, in Chicago, they’ll receive intensive math and science training, plus college-readiness skills like SAT and ACT test prep.
They’ll learn to network, and to live away from home.
And most importantly, they’ll come to see themselves as the future of tech in the United States, organizers hope, despite the fact that black, Latino and Native American people are underrepresented in STEM today.
“We all know that the face of STEM is not what we want to see,” SIUC Chancellor John Dunn told the students. “We need more brown. We need more black. We need to have the opportunity to open the human potential that’s there in every person.”
This year begins the rollout of SMASH in Illinois, with successful programs already established at host universities in California, Georgia, Pennsylvania and Michigan.
Each summer, the program will welcome another cohort, and it should serve around 100 students by 2021, when it’s fully scaled up.
The curriculum is rigorous, carefully designed and interdisciplinary. And data from other states shows it has a transformational impact.
Every SMASH student graduates high school, according to internal data, and 91 percent earn a college degree within five years, compared to the national rate of 60 percent of college enrollees.
It’s all thanks to the Kapor Center, a nonprofit founded by tech mogul Mitchell Kapor.
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In Illinois, the program also receives significant support from the Creating Pathways and Access for Student Success Foundation, a minority-STEM education nonprofit based in Chicago.
And though it’s hosted primarily at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago, SIU Carbondale has played an important role.
Unlike other states, where SMASH draws students exclusively from one city, in Illinois the program aspires to a statewide footprint.
The desire to connect with students from the lower half of the state led organizers to SIU, said Professor Linda Baker.
Baker and SIUC Student Support Services Director Renada Greer accompanied SMASH Illinois' Tracie Screven on recruiting trips to high schools in Southern Illinois and East St. Louis, a community they know well through SIUC’s Metro East Youth Leadership Weekend.
With this summer's camp about half over, this weekend’s mid-program trip to Carbondale provides another valuable experience to students, Screven said.
“Many of our students have never set foot on a college campus before SMASH,” Screven said. “This helps show them they have options.”
Like all of SMASH, the weekend was a mix of fun and hard work. Students visited University Farms and the engineering labs, and did data analysis alongside Mathematics Professor Wesley Calvert.
“The overall goal is to give them exposure to faculty through hands-on activities and actually get them doing research, instead of being lectured at,” Greer said.
Mike Eichholz, a waterfowl and wetland ecologist in the Department of Zoology, was one of many professors who volunteered to share their research.
“This is something that’s very personal to me,” he said, “When I visit our state wildlife areas, they are full of white people. I want to get minorities involved in this field I love, so someday there will be people who look like them sitting behind the desks.”
Three weeks in, students have adjusted to the intense schedule and the challenging work, said Chicago native Zarianna Oakley.
“It’s a community so it brings everyone together,” she said. “East St. Louis, Chicago, Carbondale, we all love each other so much.”
Besides daily classes, Oakley is building her own website with another student and working on a project using augmented reality to tackle problems in healthcare, she told the Southern.
In future years, both Oakley and SIUC Interim Provost Meera Komarraju hope students can spend more of their summer at SIU Carbondale.
“We would love to have our own cohort here, or host students for a greater portion of their SMASH experience,” Komarraju said. “We are committed to this program.”