SMILE gives students confidence, boosts STEM skills

Teachers standing in stream

SMILE Spring teacher workshop is truly hands-on -- in the river near HJ Andrews Experimental Forest. (contributed photo)

Nyssa, Ore., is located on Oregon’s eastern border, much closer to Boise than Portland. The town’s only high school has about 300 students. Many of the students are Latino, most come from rural, lower income families, and few have parents who attended college (less than 7 percent of adults in Nyssa have a degree).

But in the last 25 years, the idea of attending college has become more of a reality for Nyssa High School students. In part, that’s because of a strong relationship they’ve formed with Oregon State University through an afterschool program called SMILE (Science & Math Investigative Learning Experiences Program).

SMILE provides educational programming through its afterschool science and math clubs for more than 650 underserved youth, and training and support to 55 teachers in 34 rural grade and high schools in Oregon. The teachers attend workshops held at OSU where they learn to serve as after-school club advisors, are provided curriculum and engaging activities to foster interest and engagement in to participating students which emphasizes math, science, engineering and health. A majority of those students are Latino and Native American, and the rest are low-income white students.

Ken Dickey has been the SMILE teacher at Nyssa High School for more than two decades. He’s seen students who previously hadn’t considered college now fully committed to attending a university.

“The emphasis SMILE places on college readiness has a contagious effect, I believe, on our entire student body,” Dickey said. “After many years of investment in SMILE, our students know that they really can go to college and succeed if they develop the right attitude and put in the effort – their older brothers and sisters, their cousins and friends have already proven it so.”

More than 7,000 students have participated in SMILE programs over the last 25 years. But the impact of SMILE is much greater, SMILE assistant director Ryan Collay says, because in addition to their role as club advisers, the teachers also bring their specialized training back to their classrooms, meaning that thousands of students have been exposed to high-level science and math curriculum.

SMILE conducts a year-long schedule of activities designed to provide hands-on science and math experience, strengthen student knowledge and raise student academic and career aspirations via after school clubs, college connection events and a summer bridge program for SMILE graduates attending OSU. There are also annual middle and high school challenge events that bring SMILE students from across Oregon together to compete in science events such as the high school Ocean Sciences Challenge.

Students standing in circle

2012 Summer Bridge students doing a team-building exercise. (contributed photo)

Dickey said these strong ties to the university have really propelled Nyssa students toward a college degree.

“Because of the OSU connections and its continuing commitment to the Nyssa community, so many students have enjoyed college success – students who I believe likely would never have undertaken college,” Dickey said.

On Oct. 15, SMILE was one of 24 organizations honored by the U.S. Department of Education and the Corporation for National and Community Service as Together for Tomorrow Challenge winners for the 2012-2013 school year. The award recognizes community-led partnerships whose goal is assisting struggling schools. SMILE was the only statewide rural program focused on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) honored at the event.

SMILE partners

Some of SMILE’s regular partners include Oregon 4-H, GEAR-UP (Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs), the Oregon University System Engineering and Technology Industry Council (ETIC), and the College Access Network. With help from the NOAA-funded Cooperative Institute for Oceanographic Satellite Studies and Oregon Sea Grant, they’ve developed ocean-based curriculum for high school students. A new partnership, as part of a USDA funded research project in bioenergy, is a comprehensive educational collaborative that reaches from K-12 and Summer Bridge to College programs, to undergraduates and graduate students from across campus. The Oregon Climate Research Institute (OCRI), the Oregon Natural Resources Educational Program (ONREP) in the OSU College of Forestry, along with numerous other partnerships, have also played important roles in making a difference in underserved schools in Oregon.

Collay says that SMILE is not a stand-alone program. Instead, “Our function is as the glue that binds people together.” Those people are teachers, school administrators, family OSU educators and many others that all lend their support, aid and time to making sure the SMILE program reaches its goal. Collay sees SMILE’s biggest success is in developing and facilitating mutually beneficial relationships between entities with similar goals, but perhaps less capacity to directly reach the K-12 students and teachers in these underserved communities.

“We serve the least-served schools because they are the least likely to gain any other services,” said Collay. It’s about more than directly providing programming. SMILE staff looks at the kind of partners they need to amplify their own offerings, with both funding and expertise that greatly expand what SMILE could do on its own.

Ted Strub, a professor with the College of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences, said SMILE was an important outreach partner for the NOAA Cooperative Institute for Oceanographic Satellite Studies during its 10-year lifetime. SMILE’s existing structure allowed the group to provide public school teachers and students with examples of how a mission-based agency like NOAA uses science and technology to solve problems facing the nation, such as oil spills, management of fisheries and search and rescue operations by the Coast Guard.

“During our 5-year review, the External Review Board was so impressed with SMILE that they made the recommendation that NOAA consider it as a model for broader, national programs,” Strub said.

To create such an outreach program on its own would have taken a long time, Strub said.

“The SMILE program allowed us to use our limited resources efficiently in promoting science and its use to solve societal problems.”

Jo Oshiro, program coordinator for ETIC, said SMILE raises the bar for students and teachers in the communities it serves.

“SMILE has been a great partner for us in spreading the details of how to implement successful youth development programs in academics, sharing successes and challenges with other programs,” Oshiro said. “Their work on bringing engineering – the process, the discipline, the colleges, the career — to middle school students has been way ahead of the curve on the STEM education you hear so much about these days.”

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