The SMILE Program
One humid afternoon in rural Georgia a half–century ago, 5–year–old Eda Davis learned her first lesson about race in America. Sitting on the porch, she watched a truck approach her family’s farmhouse, kicking up dust as it passed the fields of tobacco and peanuts. A man and a small boy got out. The man shook hands with Eda’s father, and the two went inside to do business. The boy eyed Eda shyly. She smiled and picked up a giant cocklebur from the rough wooden planks and rolled it toward him. He grinned and rolled it back. Suddenly, Eda’s mother flung open the screen door and rushed out. "No, no! Eda, you can’t do that!" she hollered. "Don’t you know you can get yourself killed playing with a white boy?"
Learning that African Americans, even children, could be murdered for crossing racial boundaries was just the beginning of Eda’s indoctrination to the segregated South. It was the late 1950s. The nascent civil rights movement was barely a rumor out in Ben Hill County where the Ocmulgee River flows, slow and brown.
Several years later, a high school physics teacher set Eda, who aspired to study English in college, on the path to leadership of one of the nation’s premier science education programs at Oregon State University. "You have too good a scientific mind," the teacher insisted. "I’m not going to let you major in English."
Eda loved science too — the orderliness of it, the way it explained the physical world. As the only African American physics major at the University of Georgia, and one of a handful of women, she felt intensely lonely. "But I was determined not to let that stop me," she says. "I was absolutely convinced that I could do it."
While doing graduate work at OSU in 1989, she volunteered at a math and physics summer camp held by the Science and Math Investigative Learning Experiences Program (the SMILE Program). Ten years later, she was running the program, which has won national awards and funding support from state and federal agencies and foundations.
Raising college aspirations among underserved kids, SMILE offers hands–on projects in applied mathematics and sciences, including ecosystem science and oceanography, to elementary, middle and high school students from 35 schools in 15 Oregon communities. Several times a year, busloads of rambunctious scientist–wannabes rumble onto campus, where they design spacecraft, search for lost ships with GPS devices and engage in other kid–friendly science challenges. Researchers, K–12 teachers and college students serve as guides and mentors.
"SMILE is about giving students the one–on–one attention they need, for as long as it takes, to help them realize their potential," Davis–Lowe says. "We want fourth–graders talking to college students and seeing the excitement of learning, dreaming about going to college."
Like Davis–Lowe, 70 percent of SMILE’s 700 mostly poor, rural students would be first–generation college attendees. As Davis–Lowe knows firsthand, higher education can pose significant hurdles for ethnic–minority and low–income children.
Oregon may not look much like 1950s–era Georgia. Yet it harbors its own form of racism: low expectations. "Most Oregon youths aren’t dealing with the overt racism I experienced growing up," says Davis–Lowe. "Here, it’s more subtle, more insidious. SMILE helps students build capacity to meet racism head–on, while still maintaining a healthy sense of their identity and their potential."