Can the W.M. Keck Foundation Level the Playing Field for STEM Education?

The W.M. Keck Foundation is putting its weight behind a summer program that helps students from underrepresented minority populations pursue careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. (See W.M. Keck Foundation: Grants for STEM Higher Education).

The Keck Foundation awarded a $200,000 grant to support the Summer Math and Science Honors program, otherwise known as SMASH. The program searches for high-achieving students from low-income households in the Los Angeles area. These kids join the program for three years, spending five weeks each summer studying a STEM subject in a college setting while living in dorms at UCLA or the University of Southern California.

The goal is to help these students — most of whom are Latino or African-American — get a jump-start on careers in STEM fields. Minority populations are underrepresented in these areas. In fact, African-Americans, Latinos, and American Indians made up just 10.5% of the U.S. citizens who earned a Ph.D. in science or engineering in 2008, according to the Level Playing Field Institute, which runs SMASH.

In addition to helping students fulfill their potential, the founders of SMASH believe it can help the nation by expanding the universe of students who are interested in science and technology fields. Math and science education ranks just 52nd in the world in terms of quality, according to the World Economic Forum.

"No talent should be left behind. SMASH is good for the kids who participate, their families, their communities and ultimately, our country," Level Playing Field Institute board member Mitch Kapor said.

With the Keck Foundation’s assistance, SMASH plans to expand the number of students who can take part in the program, as well as the number of courses that can be offered.

The SMASH grant is a small part of the Keck Foundation's overall portfolio. Its education grants aren't entirely limited to the science and technology field, but most of the funding for pre-collegiate education goes to institutions in the Los Angeles area, where the foundation is based. Your project will have a leg up if it has strong potential for lasting impact and benefits children with special needs or from low-income families. (Read W.M. Keck executive director of programs, Maria Pellegrini's IP profile).

However, the Keck Foundation also has a robust grant program aimed primarily at improving science and technology education nationwide at the undergraduate level. In 2011, the foundation distributed more than $3 million to these causes, often for the purchase of new scientific equipment or to support research training programs for college students. This can be a valuable source of support for those interested in improving the scientific literacy of college students across the United States.