Surprise $200 million bequest has tiny Summer Science Program thinking big

What changes would you make if a summer science camp you’ve run for 64 years with little publicity received a $200 million windfall? That’s the enviable task facing the nonprofit Summer Science Program (SSP), which is reviewing its time-tested strategy of serving a tiny cadre of high-achieving high school juniors in the wake of a bequest from the estate of a former alumnus.

One big question is whether the program should expand beyond students already bent on a scientific career to reach the much larger population of students indifferent to science or lacking the opportunity to realize their potential. “It’s an elite program. That’s their brand,” says longtime observer Russell Moore, an integrative physiologist and provost at the University of Colorado (CU) Boulder, one of four U.S. universities that host SSP students every summer. “And it’s a remarkable program for those students.”

“But it could also be remarkable for other types of students,” says Moore, who confesses that he “never would have gotten into” SSP as a teenager. “And $200 million opens up a lot of possibilities.”

SSP’s newfound wealth comes from Franklin Antonio, a 1969 SSP graduate who co-founded chipmaking giant Qualcomm and died last year at age 69. Deciding how to spend it falls to Frank Steslow, a veteran science museum administrator who became SSP’s chief executive in January.

Steslow says doubling the number of participants, increasing student financial aid, and seeking a more diverse pool of applicants are at the top of his list of options. But everything is on the table, he adds, including expanding beyond the program’s offerings in astrophysics, biochemistry, and genomics; providing activities for younger students; and offering professional development to middle and high school science teachers.

SSP was started in 1959 as a response to the Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik and fears that the United States had lost its scientific edge. For decades, its only course was in astrophysics, where students worked in small teams to plot the orbital trajectory of one of thousands of uncharted near-Earth asteroids. In 2017 it began to offer biochemistry, asking students to design a molecule to block a fungal plant pathogen, and last year it added genomics. With an initial class of 26 students, SSP grew slowly for decades but has doubled in size in the past 6 years to a record 204 students this past summer.

The 6-week program caters to students who want to immerse themselves in science—data collection and analysis can run well into the evening after a day of classwork—and who have taken the prerequisite math courses in school. Richard Bowdon, who retired last year after serving as SSP’s executive director for 23 years, thinks its 3400 alumni are proof that the curriculum is appealing.

Despite its longevity, SSP is not well known among researchers who study science enrichment programs, and its impact has never been formally evaluated. The National Science Foundation funded it for 2 decades before deciding that SSP was too elitist. For the next 20 years it was managed by a California prep school that was also its home for 4 decades. In 1999, after the school pulled out, a handful of alumni—including Bowdon, class of 1974—rescued SSP from extinction by forming a nonprofit organization that signed up a handful of universities to host the program.

Image of a telescope at the University of Colorado Boulder observatory taken during SSP's Summer 2023 Astrophysics program
Summer Science Program students use telescopes at the University of Colorado Boulder to take observations of near-Earth asteroids. Gustavo Hochman

The program runs with a skeletal staff and a $4 million operating budget generated largely by tuition (now $8400) and alumni contributions. Its participants, all rising high school seniors, apply to top research universities, with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) the most popular destination.

Bowdon, a software developer who believes passionately in SSP’s mission, and Moore, who was instrumental in bringing SSP to CU Boulder in 2015, shared their thoughts on the program with Science Insider.

Q: When did you learn about the bequest?

Richard Bowdon: In 2009 Franklin gave us $700,000, which we used to kick-start our endowment. And after his untimely passing [in May 2022], we said to each other, “Gee, we should have had a conversation with him about legacy giving.” But we never did. He didn’t offer us anything and we never asked. So it was quite a surprise when we found out 2 months later that he had written us into his will.

Q: What type of student is attracted to SSP?

R.B.: A lot of our students have been groomed from early childhood to go to MIT or the Ivy League. And so I refer to them as diamonds in the jewelry store. They’re all polished, they’re on display with a spotlight shining on them, and they look brilliant. But our best type of recruit is what I call a diamond in the rough. They are not already locked into a trajectory of going to MIT. They probably don’t know anyone who ever went to MIT. And no one’s telling them to apply to MIT. But they could, because they have that potential. They just don’t know it.

Q: Why would a university want to host an SSP program?

Russell Moore: CU Boulder has a very strong reputation in space science and space exploration. So we thought that a derivative benefit for us might be that some of the students would be interested in coming here. As it turns out, that part hasn’t been very successful. We’ve only had one or two students enroll.

But we run a lot of summer programs for middle and high school students from diverse backgrounds. And I think it’s kind of cool for them to see these incredibly gifted students [in the SSP program] doing science and to think, “Hey, I want to see if I can do that, too.” And then if they were to come to Boulder, we’d say, “Guess what? We also have undergraduate research programs.”

Q: Why does SSP only take students entering their senior year of high school?

R.B.: First, we wanted this experience to have a profound effect on that student’s choice of where to apply to college. That happens in the fall of their senior year, so the summer before that is when they can be inspired—and then write about it in their college application. Second, the most motivated and talented students are capable of doing real research at that age, say 16 or 17. They have enough preparation and enough maturity to tackle a real scientific problem. That’s not true at 14.

Q: What makes SSP distinctive from other summer science camps?

R.B.: First, the students feel a sense of ownership because they are getting to do a project from start to finish. Also, it’s got some relevance to their lives. And it’s real science. The experiment hasn’t been done 1000 times already, like in a lab course, where you use equipment to take some kind of measurement where there’s a right answer that’s well known.

Q: Why isn’t SSP better known?

R.B.: It’s because until recently we’ve been so small. It’s like a secret society. But I think that’s about to change.