STEM college prep program helps Michigan students in COVID-19 era

Students, educators, mentors moving forward with STEM literacy

SMASH Midwest
SMASH Midwest (WDIV)

DETROIT – The Summer Math And Science Honors (SMASH) Academy started its Midwest institution in Detroit in 2018.

The Motown branch started on the campus of Wayne State University and has plans to expand to the University of Michigan.

“SMASH is a national STEM college prep program for high school students who are typically underrepresented in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math,” said Johnathan Ray, SMASH Midwest Regional Director.

Mr. Ray’s dedication to SMASH’s mission and its students is personal, and now it is even deeper in the COVID-19 era. The coronavirus’s devastation literally hits home for him.

SMASH Midwest
SMASH Midwest (WDIV)

“I have lost two family members from COVID-19 and many more family friends have fallen ill to the virus," said Ray.

Also, it’s personal because of the connection forged amongst the SMASH organization and with many young people they are committed to serving.

“In the past few days, I’ve talked to a scholar about a cousin being in ICU, another being accepted into a Princeton program, one needing advice on the changes to Advanced Placement courses, and another just catching up. When you work with youth you are always there for them in various capacities so the pandemic has simply highlighted how important educators are in the lives of these young people,” Ray said

“Underrepresented” students include young persons who are African-American, Latino-American and Native American. They have there personal description of human tragedy, as well.

SMASH Midwest
SMASH Midwest (WDIV)

“Many SMASH staff and scholars have shared stories of their parents being frontline workers, having a family member catch coronavirus, and losing jobs," Ray said. "For example, on top of the ‘normal’ impact that everyone has experienced, a scholar deals with her mom being a frontline worker at a local hospital and feels a sense of isolation because she has to social distance at home by herself while attempting to learn.”

Also, these populations of our fellow human beings in Michigan as a whole have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19. For example, 13.4 percent of Michigan’s population is African-American according the United States Census. However, African-Americans account for 32 percent of coronavirus cases and 40 percent of coronavirus deaths in Michigan according to the state’s Department of Health and Human Services.

“The racial disparities that exist within this country, exacerbated by this pandemic solidifies the need for programs like SMASH. It is essential that we not only create a pipeline into the STEM profession, many of whom are solving this global virus, but also intentionally teach social justice so they can address systematic racism," Ray said.

SMASH is not just a one-week, one-semester nor one-year endeavor for its students. Participation is a multi-year challenge. Mr. Ray continues, "SMASH scholars participate in a three-year residential academy on a college campus, attend Saturday workshops, and have the opportunity to intern at STEM-focused companies -- all for free.”

The novel coronavirus has driven efforts off campus, but that has not stopped Mr. Ray and his team. In the same pioneering spirit that launched midwest operations in Motown, SMASH workers are pushing ahead with helping students in the beginning or in the middle of their three-year tenure this year.

“Our SMASH Wayne State program will no longer feature our signature residential program yet will move to a virtual setting and our inaugural launch of SMASH Michigan (ed., on the University of Michigan’s Ann Arbor campus) has been postponed until Fall 2020,” Ray said.

There is no delay for SMASH students whether they are in the middle of or starting their three-year tenure as early as tomorrow, Friday, May 1.

“Our Midwest scholars will focus on wellness, community building, and learning through virtual study halls, STEAM projects, fitness challenges and more starting in May; these are all scholar-led engagements so they are excited to convene as a SMASH family and find some normalcy among these unknown times," Ray said.

Then the natural transition to summer activity will commence.

“During this summer SMASH scholars will continue to research and provide a solution to a community problem (such as the COVID-19 pandemic) in a group setting, prepare for college through workshops, and engage with STEM professionals in Detroit, Southeastern Michigan, and nationwide,”Ray said.

They are and envision performing virtually with technology and tools they were already using over year before the virus infected people and well before the pandemic started.

“I want to ensure that those who need support the most are aware of the various resources out there for them,” he said.

A digital divide still exists where many families and communities have limited or no access to the internet or even to television.

“These may be kids who don’t watch the news or families who may not be connected but still are in need of assistance to meet their basic emotional, food, housing, and educational needs.”

So far, SMASH is seeing signs of breaking through this bias-barrier.

“We are still assessing stable and strong internet connection, however initial results indicate each family has some form of internet access.”

Pupils’ access to SMASH’s system of educators and mentors is achieved with hardware from the organization.

“SMASH provides laptops to each of our students in the program so they all have access to a tech device,” Ray said.

As a STEM-literacy-oriented organization, software tools are being employed, too.

“SMASH has been able to quickly adapt to the remote work setting ensuring the safety of our full-time staff as we plan for a virtual program. SMASH scholars will engage with technology such as Zoom and Google Classroom as we shift learning," Ray said.

The commitment to students by SMASH leadership and workers is getting through successfully. During these unprecedented times of uncertainty, this is certain according to Mr. Ray.

“From holding Zoom check-ins to random FaceTime calls, my students know that I care and feel that they can reach out to me,” he said.

During and after the Coronavirus Crisis, the benefits of the SMASH education go beyond SMASH classrooms, virtual or actual. Mr. Ray envisions, not only SMASH team members, but SMASH students getting involved with local families and neighborhoods. He sees it starting sooner rather than later by saying,

The Kapor Center is based in California and is the parent company of SMASH. Because of the COVID-19 Crisis, Mr. Ray shared that it is making food donations an Oakland hospital and is launching a website to help displaced workers. Also, he says SMASH compiled a list of Detroit area resources to help students and their families with “food, financial/employment assistance and learning materials.” SMASH is open to donations for theses efforts, including “care packages, literacy materials, STEM kits and more as they cope with this global pandemic.”

Click here to donate to SMASH. To learn more about SMASH, click here. Any company, organization or foundation interested in partnering with SMASH can contact Johnathan Ray by clicking here.

About the Author: