Djata Nyaawie propels his science education with SMASH at UCLA

Djata Nyaawie plans to take the Advanced Placement physics course at Cate School in Carpinteria this fall. Statistics indicate that few like him will do the same.

Of the 22,722 students who took the Advanced Placement physics exam in California last year, fewer than 450 were black, according to data from the College Board.


Honing his science skills ahead of time, Nyaawie is participating in the Summer Math and Science Honors Academy, or SMASH, at UCLA. The five-week program is one of four summer camps run by Level Playing Field Institute, an Oakland nonprofit that receives foundation grants including one from the Los Angeles Times Family Fund. SMASH gives high-achieving minority high school students advanced course work, real-world projects and a place to discuss social justice issues.

SMASH hosted 134 campers this summer. Nyaawie, 17, has participated in SMASH every summer since he entered high school. A rising senior, he said he hopes to pursue marine biology at UCLA or UC Berkeley.

"It's interesting to see how this world came to be," he said.

Last summer, the campers were grouped by age and assigned projects to complete over the course of the session. Nyaawie's team was among those tasked with constructing and propelling a small car under strict resource and budget restrictions. Whichever team engineered its car to travel the farthest won a gift card to the UCLA store, he said.

"We looked up using butane and different substances to push the car forward, but we ended up using Diet Coke and Mentos," he said of a foamy concoction that worked as a surprise source of energy. "It worked a lot better than we thought it would."

The soda-and-candy combination was the cheapest and most accessible fuel source, but it also was the messiest. The first few times the team tried it, it got sprayed with foam, he said.

To mitigate the mess, they used PVC pipes and wooden dowels to push Mentos into the Diet Coke can. An additional PVC pipe functioned as an exhaust pipe for the foam. The team used plywood for the car's body and skateboard trucks to attach the wheels, he said.

Then, on a hot afternoon in late July, the teams met in a courtyard to put the cars to the test. The 30 campers in Nyaawie's age group gathered and cheered rowdily, he said.

"Some cars totally flopped, but ours zoomed off," he said.

In the end, Nyaawie's team wasn't awarded the grand prize. "We were robbed," he said.

Even so, the experience of working with a team and living away from home for the summer with other teenagers had its benefits, he said.

"When you're put in that environment, either you're going to have to get along and make it work, or you're going to have a miserable time," Nyaawie said.

Kenya Johnson, Nyaawie's mother, believes that SMASH gave him a profound social confidence.

"He's comfortable contributing to any type of environment and any type of team," Johnson said. "He sees other minorities and other students that are historically underrepresented on college campuses, and he can take that out into the world with him and be very secure."

The Summer Camp Campaign is part of the Los Angeles Times Family Fund, a McCormick Foundation Fund. The campaign 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 or by phone at (800) 518-3975. All gifts will receive a written acknowledgment.