This program has a brilliant plan for bringing diversity to the world of STEM.

This is what smashing through a glass ceiling looks like. Boom.

When Dr. Jennifer R. Cohen was working as a molecular biologist, she often wondered why no one else in her sector looked like her.

As a black woman, Cohen is not the typical face you'd see in a biochemistry lab. The sad reality is science and technology careers are still predominately assumed by white men even though there is a large reservoir of untapped talent among women and people of color.

The reason for the disparity seems to lie in a lack of resources to help talented but underrepresented students reach higher academic levels. While some colleges are currently looking to diversify, it's often difficult for these students to get on their radar without some sort of assistance.


Cohen knew how much underrepresented talent there was out there just waiting to realize their full potential, so she joined the SMASH program.

SMASH, or Summer Math and Science Honors, is a subsection of the nonprofit organization Level the Playing Field Institute. It's a rigorous, three-year summer program that provides settings and resources to students who are underrepresented in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and math) free of charge. The courses take place at colleges, like UCLA and UC Berkeley, that are leading the way in these fields.

By throwing these students headfirst into an environment stocked with resources, SMASH is giving them all they need to totally "own" STEM.

Students learning computer science in the SMASH University of California at Davis program. All photos via SMASH.

The movement, however, is not just about bolstering science skills. It's about creating a pipeline into colleges that will help students launch a life pursuing some of the coolest, most sought-after and most impactful STEM-related careers out there.

But they have to get in first.

Aside from helping to eliminate the barriers to a college degree and subsequent career, SMASH's teachers are doing all they can to give their students confidence. The STEM fields aren't exactly handing out positions to women and people of color, so they'll need all the conviction they have to get ahead.

UCLA's SMASH program, for example, is brimming with teachers who are women of color, and experts in their fields. Pre-calculus instructor Patrice Smith got her Bachelor of Science from UCLA in Mathematics/Applied Science and specializations in Business Administration and Computing. Having role models like her likely encourages the 53% of young women who populate the UCLA program.

Students at SMASH UC Berkeley working in a lab.

"We help them to see that they belong and that they have what it takes so there’s no question in their minds that they can be successful," Cohen explains.

Having been the only woman of color in the room, Cohen feels she can be especially helpful to the young women in SMASH. Her experience working in STEM shines a light on the inequality and need for change.

But, thanks to SMASH, change is happening, and its students are walking, dissecting, coding, algorithm-solving proof.

Leilani Reyes at SMASH Stanford.

Leilani Reyes, a first-generation college student from Fairfield, California, is studying computer science at Stanford University and was recently a software engineer intern at Medium. She's forever grateful to SMASH for opening up this world of opportunity to her.

"Academically, it granted me rigor and, more importantly, support from teachers and staff who empowered me to be curious and socially conscious in STEM exploration," writes Reyes in an email. "Professionally, it granted me resources to develop essential skills like public speaking and connections to mentors and role models who I look to for advice and inspiration."

Michael Pearson, who attended SMASH UCLA, blossomed into one of the most accomplished computer science students, often helping others with their homework after finishing his own. He's now pursuing a career in Cognitive and Computer Science at the University of Pennsylvania.

And Thomas Estrada, who went through SMASH UC Berkeley, was awarded the Regent and Chancellor's Scholarship, which helped fund his undergraduate tuition there. He majored in computer science, and is now pursuing his doctorate. This summer, he landed a coveted internship with Google.

Moises Limon, a first year at SMASH UC Berkeley.

In terms of overall numbers, 78% of current SMASH freshman declared a STEM major. To date, 55% of SMASH alumni college graduates complete with a STEM major. That's huge compared to the national average of STEM graduates, just 22%. Obviously the program is doing something right.

In the last 17 years, SMASH has helped over 500 alumni hit their academic and career goals.

The program is rapidly expanding into a national institution. One of the first east coast schools they're partnering with is the prestigious Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania. There's no telling how far SMASH's influence will go now.

This story was updated on 10/20/2017.

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UCLA Optimists

Andy Grammer, the pop singer and songwriter behind feel-good tunes like "Keep Your Head Up," "Back Home," and "Don't Give Up on Me," has a new album out—and it is seriously fabulous. Titled simply "Naive," Grammer says it's "all about how seeing the good in todays world can feel like a rebellious act."

"I wrote this album for the light bringers," Grammer shared on Facebook. "The people who choose to see the good even in the overwhelming chaos of the bad. The smilers who fight brick by brick to build an authentic smile everyday, even when it seems like an impossible thing to do. For those who have been marginalized as 'sweet' or 'cute' or 'less powerful' for being overly positive. To me optimism is a war to be fought, possibly the most important one. If I am speaking to you and you are relating to it then know I made this album for you. You are my tribe. I love you and I hope it serves you. Don't let the world turn down your shine, we all so badly need it."

Reading that, it's easy to think maybe he really is naive, but Grammer's positivity isn't due to nothing difficult ever happening in his life. His mom, Kathy, died of breast cancer when Grammer was 25. He and his mother were very close, and her life and death had a huge impact on him.

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via Stratford Festival / Twitter

Service dogs are invaluable to their owners because they are able to help in so many different ways.

They're trained to retrieve dropped Items, open and close doors, help their owners remove their clothes, transport medications, navigate busy areas such as airports, provide visual assistance, and even give psychological help.

The service dog trainers at K-9 Country Inn Working Service Dogs in Canada want those who require service dogs to live the fullest life possible, so they're training dogs on how to attend a theatrical performance.

The adorable photos of the dogs made their way to social media where they quickly went viral.

On August 15, a dozen dogs from Golden Retrievers to poodles, were treated to a performance of "Billy Elliott" at the Stratford Festival in Ontario, Canada. This was a special "relaxed performance" featuring quieter sound effects and lighting, designed for those with sensory issues.

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"It's important to prepare the dogs for any activity the handler may like to attend," Laura Mackenzie, owner and head trainer at K-9 Country Inn Working Service Dogs, told CBC.

"The theater gives us the opportunity to expose the dogs to different stimuli such as lights, loud noises, and movement of varying degrees," she continued. "The dogs must remain relaxed in tight quarters for an extended period of time."

The dogs got to enjoy the show from their own seats and took a break with everyone else during intermission. They were able to familiarize themselves with the theater experience so they know how to navigate through crowds and fit into tight bathroom stalls.

via Stratford Festival / Twitter


via Stratford Festival / Twitter


via Stratford Festival / Twitter

"About a dozen dogs came to our relaxed performance, and they were all extremely well-behaved," says Stratford Festival spokesperson Ann Swerdfager. "I was in the lobby when they came in, then they took their seats, then got out of their seats at intermission and went back — all of the things we learn as humans when we start going to the theater."

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The dogs' great performance at the trial run means that people who require service animals can have the freedom to enjoy special experiences like going to the theater.

"It's wonderful that going to the theater is considered one of the things that you want to train a service dog for, rather than thinking that theater is out of reach for people who require a service animal, because it isn't," Swerdfager said.

The Stratford Festival runs through Nov. 10 and features productions of "The Merry Wives of Windsor," "The Neverending Story," "Othello," "Billy Elliot," "Little Shop of Horrors," "The Crucible" and more.

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