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Program promoting STEM careers among students of color is expanding to Illinois

Illinois Lt. Gov. Juliana Stratton flanked by other supporters of a new statewide education program. | Manny Ramos/Sun-Times

Some Illinois high school students who are thinking about a career in science and technology could get some help from a program launched Thursday.

The California-based Kapor Center, which tries to increase diversity in tech fields, is bringing its SMASH Academy college-prep program to Illinois.

The program focuses on helping high school students living in under-resourced communities. The initiative started at the University of California, Berkeley, in 2004. Expanding to Illinois puts the program on nine college campuses in five states.

Branded as SMASH Illinois, the program will recruit students primarily from Chicago’s South Side, Carbondale and East St. Louis; it will emphasize African-American and Latino students, who are underrepresented in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields.

Applications are now being accepted for the inaugural group of 45 students in this summer’s five-week program. They will live either at the Illinois Institute of Technology or Southern Illinois University’s Carbondale campus. Students will gain access to computer science courses, connect with STEM professionals of color, and build life skills.

The hope is to build a pipeline of students of color who may pursue a STEM career.

Lt. Gov. Juliana Stratton and Illinois Senate Assistant Majority Leader Kimberly Lightford attended Thursday’s launch of the program in Illinois.

“We see so many jobs and opportunities opening up, but unfortunately we’re not seeing those opportunities open up at the same rate for people from communities of color,” Stratton said. “We can expose them to the STEM field, with mentoring, workshops and exposure to institutions of higher education, and put them on a path toward success.”

In 2018, the Pew Research Center analyzed diversity within STEM-based careers, and found that African-Americans held just 9 percent of all STEM jobs; Hispanics, only 7 percent. It was a modest improvement from 1990; the figures then were 7 percent for African-Americans and 4 percent for Hispanics.

The SMASH Illinois program, Stratton said, has the opportunity to transform the lives of students and their families.

“We want our students to be competitive participants in the STEM labor force, especially in the rising healthcare tech field,” said Lightford.

All SMASH Academy students have gone on to graduate high school; 91 percent have graduated college within five years, according to SMASH figures.

The deadline to apply for the program is March 1.

Manny Ramos is a corps member in Report for America, a not-for-profit journalism program that aims to bolster Sun-Times coverage of issues affecting Chicago’s South and West sides.