Thursday, July 27, 2006

A Smashing Success

Yesterday evening, a colleague and I drove up to UC Berkeley to visit our four students who are participating in the Level Playing Field Institute's SMASH program. Here are their goals, according to their website:

First, we prepare students from underrepresented communities to be competitive in science, technology, engineering, and math-related studies (STEM) at the University of California or schools of similar caliber.

Second, our goal is to have all students aware of graduate school opportunities and encouraged to eventually attend in order to further pursue professional, STEM-related studies or careers.

Third, through SMASH, we hope to encourage a sense of social responsibility through promotion of critical thinking, civic awareness and leadership.

It's quite an intensive program. Student are in class all day until 5. They have dinner at the dining hall, and then have a self-run student meeting at 6:30. Then, they have mandatory study hall from 7 to 9.

Apparently, they have had too many discipline problems lately - we witnessed quite an amazing student meeting. It was run entirely by the "third years" who were elected to the student council. The meeting was held outside, with everyone standing in a big circle. It started off with apologies, as over a dozen students, one by one, entered the center of the circle and said they were sorry for breaking whatever rules they broke, or for their bad behaviors or attitudes. No one laughed - in fact, they all seemed to take it completely seriously. The longer or more heartfelt apologies got sincere applause from the crowd. There were some TAs in the group (recent high school grads), but there were no staff members and no other adults. I don't know how they were able to build this kind of culture among the students, but it was amazing to see (and a little surreal).

Our students love the program. Though they struggle academically in comparison to some of the other participants, they are holding their own. What a great experience for them - living in the dorms with roommates, eating at the dining halls, spending a summer committed to improving their math, science, and english skills. It felt like Harry Potter without the lightning bolts.

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