When 28 high school-age boys signed up to participate in the first year of a STEM program at Morehouse College, they could never have predicted the bond that would develop among them.
STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) careers are predicted to continue to grow according to the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Economics and Statistics Administration, but nonwhite young men ― especially Black ones ― are some of the least represented.
Yet, a program hosted by Level Playing Field Institute at an Atlanta historically Black college June 10-July 15 is trying to change that and Koren Mayson and Jeremiah Smoot are among the shining examples of the possible future of the technology industry.
The two Atlanta-area 10th-graders were among the metro-area high schoolers who participated as full-time college residents at Morehouse for LPFI’s Summer Math and Science Honors Academy, which educates underrepresented, low-income nonwhite boys about STEM careers. The free, five-week partnership with the HBCU continues over the course of three years and teaches valuable skills in STEM.
“This program has helped me to see how Black men are coming in to be successful in any field they choose and how [nonwhite] people are not represented well in [the] STEM field,” Mayson said of the effort at Morehouse, which has bolstered the focus on STEM, according to LPFI CEO Eli Kennedy. “This program has taught me that it doesn’t matter your skin color, you can pursue any dream you want, including stem field.”
Mayson attends Elite Scholars Academy in Morrow, Ga., and plans to pursue a degree in architectural engineering. He said most people in his community are interested in sports, but even though he has participated in track and field, he chose to go the technical route because of better educational and career opportunities.
The number of Black men who have obtained bachelor’s degrees in science and engineering has largely remained the same in a 10-year span, increasing from 6.1 percent in 2002 to 6.2 percent in 2012, according to data from the National Science Foundation. Career-wise, the NSF found Black men represent just 3 percent of the science and engineering workforce, yet they make up 6.2 percent of America’s population age 18 to 64, according to the 2010 census.
SMASH aims to change that.
Kennedy said the California-based program has sent nearly all of its 459 alumni — who attended the program at UCLA, UC-Berkeley, UC-Davis and Stanford — to four-year colleges and the scholars are majoring in STEM at three times the national rate.
The shared interest in STEM is part of what created the bond of brotherhood that emerged among the young men.
“We are all brothers,” said Smoot, who attends South Atlanta High School and plans to major in political science.”We’re not just friends — we’re closer. We’ve learned to hold each other accountable. It’s amazing to see how we grow together. We’re always there for each other and rooting for each other.”
Site director Dr. Brian Garrett believes brotherhood was a natural component of the program because of its location at an HBCU, which hosted SMASH’s first-gender specific program in its 13-year history.
“The brotherhood part I felt was always going to happen,” Garrett said. “And all the residential advisers were either current students or graduated from Morehouse this year. … So, they understand the brotherhood.”
However, brotherhood wasn’t forged immediately. While the scholars admitted that the computer science courses were difficult, living with other students was also challenging, since not everyone was immediately receptive to forming such bonds upon their arrival in June.
“I would say the most challenging thing for me was understanding that everyone moves at their own pace and that not everyone will jump into a relationship with each other,” Smoot said.
Another thing students weren’t initially ready for was giving up their summer sports for continuing their education. Although Garrett said the parents have seen their sons grow by participating in SMASH, he noted the boys and said their parents encouraged them to participate in it.
Garrett believes another thing had an impact on the way the students bonded: social justice, which is something that set SMASH apart from other STEM programs.
“Social justice requires community. It requires brotherhood and building up each other, so there’s definitely a connection,” Garret said.
Smoot believes embracing the social justice aspect of the program can create a profound shift in the way the students view themselves. Ahead of the program’s conclusion on July 15, both boys said they planned on using what they learned to better themselves in school this year.
“I plan to blow school out the water and be a different person and not stopping till school is over,” Smoot said. “I’m going to be the best person I can be because I know my brothers are rooting for me.”