On a recent Tuesday, the leader of the French Toast Mafia looked harmless. She wore a lime-green shirt featuring Carlton from "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" and her mafia "thugs" were 17 smiling high schoolers in slacks and black polos.
But she does want her bunch to enter some big battles.
Specifically, Kim Merino is worried because of the nearly 4,000 students who took the Advanced Placement computer science exam in California last year, not even 400 of them were black or Latino. She's out to create some hackers who she hopes will address social justice issues, including health and environmental ones, through computer programming.
Merino is an instructor at SMASH USC, one of four summer camps run by Level Playing Field Institute with grants from a variety of foundations and the Los Angeles Times Family Fund. The Oakland nonprofit supports science and technology education in economically disadvantaged communities.
"SMASH is the bridge between aspirations of underprivileged students and their ability to get a science, technology, engineering or math degree," said institute executive director Jarvis Sulcer.
Students attend the free, five-week camp beginning the summer after ninth grade and return the next two summers alongside a new set of about 25 freshmen. The Los Angeles programs at USC and UCLA started last year. Campers go on field trips and do community-building exercises — coming up with the mafia moniker was one. They emphasize computer programming because literacy means much more than words on paper these days.
"Knowing how to program is something tangible," said Merino, a teacher at the UCLA Community School. "They need to know the technical aspects of computing, not just learning how to make PowerPoints."
First-years have picked up the binary numerical system that powers computers and basics, such as how to attach actions to objects.
Lilly Diaz, a sophomore at Foshay Learning Center in South Los Angeles, created an animation featuring talking penguins.
"You want the little penguin to do something, but it's just not doing it," the aspiring filmmaker said as she tried to resolve a glitch. "It's just so frustrating — I have admiration for people who do this all day long."
Students who are selected for SMASH (Summer Math and Science Honors Academy) tend to get A's, speak up in class and help others without being asked. Most say they're determined to become doctors, chemists, engineers and programmers. They're all eager to try technology to learn more about how systems work, whether they be computers, human digestion or roller coasters.
Some students are tracking their calories using a smartphone app. Foshay junior Jennifer Donis said she wants to bring more of that health technology to her community as a pediatrician.
"Our nation is at the right moment to do something about childhood obesity," she said.
Whether these students maintain high-tech learning between summers is a concern, Merino said. L.A. Unified has been slow to provide hands-on tech training and large class sizes limit access to extra help, students said.
Brian Guzman, a Foshay junior, said he walked a mile after school each day last year to work on building a robot for a competition because the school couldn't support the team. He also follows programming tutorials on CodeAcademy.com.
"That's what's the world's coming to — using technology for everything," Guzman said.
The Summer Camp Campaign, part of the Los Angeles Times Family Fund, a McCormick Foundation Fund, raises contributions to support programs that provide thousands of Southern California's at-risk children ages 7 to 17 with enriching, educational and fun camp experiences. Donations are tax-deductible as permitted by law and matched at 50 cents on the dollar. Donor information is not traded or published without permission. Donate online at latimes.com/donate or by calling (800) 518-3975. All gifts will receive a written acknowledgment.
Twitter: @peard33Copyright © 2015, CT Now