Submitted on Thursday, 8/14/2014, at 9:52 AM

By Peter Rooney

On a summer afternoon in an Amherst College chemistry lab, new friends and incoming first-year students Natalia Dyer of Queens, N.Y., and Alejandra Possu of Houston take a break from writing a lab report.

They’re part of a group of admitted Amherst students selected to participate in an innovative science and math program that introduces them to some of the toughest calculus and chemistry problems they’ll face during their first year at Amherst.

The program seeks to level the academic playing field for promising students with an interest in science and math whose backgrounds may not have prepared for them for the rigorous courses they soon will be facing.

collage of 3 photos from summer chemistry lab

Discussing, then solving chemistry problems

“They emailed me about summer science because I’m interested in pre-med,” Dyer said. “I’ve never taken calculus before and they told us we’re going to do chemistry, calculus and bio. So I was definitely thinking I should be more prepared for college level calculus.”

After two weeks in the three-week program, Dyer and Possu were feeling more confident by the day.

“The professors are so willing to help work with you, and the doors really seem open here,” Possu said. “I’m really glad I came.”

Now in its 27th year, The Summer Science program has been tweaked and refined to the point where more than half of its participants go on to major in science and math.

Increasing the number of women, minorities and low-income students who graduate with degrees in so-called STEM fields – majors that incorporate elements of science, technology, engineering and mathematics – has long been a priority at Amherst.

It’s also become a priority at the White House, which recently invited Amherst to join other colleges and universities in improving higher education access and success for low-income students. As one of its four announced initiatives,  Amherst pledged to increase the proportion of low-income Amherst students who major in science and math fields.

The Summer Science program is helping the college achieve that goal. The percentage of low-income students at Amherst who graduated with a STEM major increased from 9 percent in 2008 to 32 percent in 2013. (Low-income students graduate from Amherst at about the same rate as other students—95 percent.)

“In the first five years of the program about 10 percent of those who participated majored in math or science,” said Jennifer Innes, director of the Moss Quantitative Center at Amherst College and director of the Summer Science program. “That increased to about 20 percent in the next five years and to 30 percent in the decade after that. In the last three years we’re seeing 50 to 60 percent of the participants go on to major in math and science.”

Collage of 3 photos from summer math class

Math professor Robert Benedetto talks calculus

One of them is Omar Pineda, a math major from the Bronx who will be a junior this fall. A Summer Science veteran, this is his second year working as a tutor for the program.

“If I hadn’t done the program I would have come in the fall, taken math and science classes and been totally overwhelmed,” Pineda said. “Instead of majoring in math, I probably would have been discouraged from taking more of those classes.”

As tutors, Pineda and Doyin Ariyibi ’17 not only share chemistry and calculus pointers but also help students form friendships and become familiar with the routine of college life.

“One thing I really like about the program is that it’s not just academic, it’s social too,” said Ariyibi, who’s from Nigeria. “You’re bonding with people from similar backgrounds and when school starts you have a support group already, people you can study or go over notes with.”

The Summer Science program is not about lowering academic standards for students who may have attended high schools with few labs or AP courses to offer. Instead, Summer Science presents students with the most challenging material they’ll face in their freshman courses, and then provides the professors, instructors and tutors to help students work through the material.

“A lot of my work is to help students overcome negative associations they may have with chemistry from high school,” said Richmond Ampiah-Bonney, an academic manager who teaches chemistry labs, leads discussion groups and charts the progress of all Amherst students taking introductory chemistry. “I’m trying to boost their confidence.  I’m also encouraging them to access the resources here to help them succeed.”

Math professor and former dean of the faculty Gregory Call has been teaching at the program since 1994. He’s only missed one summer. Call said he keeps coming back because of the enthusiasm of the students.

“They’re immensely fun to work with,” he said. “They’re excited, dedicated, anxious and really eager to do well.”