CORVALLIS - Eda Davis-Butts has been named director of Oregon State University's Science and Math Investigative Learning Experiences, or SMILE program, an innovative education and outreach effort to encourage minority and rural youths to pursue studies and careers in science.
She succeeds Sue Borden, who will retire as SMILE director on June 30.
Davis-Butts, 45, has been a programs coordinator for SMILE since 1995. She joined the university faculty in 1989 as an instructor in the Educational Opportunities Program three years after arriving on campus to do graduate studies in physics.
"I consider this a great privilege," said Davis-Butts. "I am proud to be associated with the SMILE program and consider it to be one of the nation's most successful programs at attracting minority youth to study science and math."
Developed in 1988, SMILE was designed to encourage Hispanic, Native American, African American and other minority or disadvantaged students to attend college and pursue careers in math, science, engineering, health and teaching. What started as an innovative idea with 80 students in four mostly-rural middle schools, has now expanded to 39 schools and 750 students in 10 school districts. SMILE has a proven track record of keeping students in school.
Last year, 100 percent of the SMILE participants who stayed with the program through high school earned their high school diploma, about double the usual rate for the minority students SMILE serves and solidly higher than the rate for Oregon students as a whole. The dropout rate for SMILE seniors is close to zero, and last year 89 percent went on to college. Students who participate at least one year in SMILE have an 85 percent graduation rate from high school.
"The program benefits more than the students and teachers who are involved," Davis-Butts said. "Entire schools are affected by the program. What these students and teachers learn as part of the SMILE program they share many times over."
Expanding SMILE in Oregon and exporting it to other states is a top priority for Davis-Butts. "We need to find ways to put the fundamentals used in the SMILE program to work in other parts of the country," she said. "It's important that we share the SMILE philosophy and strategies and work with other universities to tell students that they can go to college and to demystify the college experience as one that remains foreign to them."
Borden, who has been the second director since the program's inception, said Davis-Butts is the perfect person to move SMILE forward.
"She is completely devoted to the mission of the program," Borden said. "She is such a quick study and the fact that she has been with the program helps her grasp what needs to be done. SMILE will grow under her direction."
Davis-Butts said she understands first-hand what it's like as a minority student studying science and math. She entered the University of Georgia to study physics in the years immediately following desegregation.
"In all of my major classes at the University of Georgia I was the only black person and the only female," she said.
Davis-Butts said she originally planned to major in English in college until a teacher approached her during her junior year of high school in Fitzgerald, Ga.
"My chemistry teacher's husband was the physics teacher at my high school and he told me he wouldn't let me major in English," she said. "He said I had too good of a science mind and his encouragement to pursue science made me stop and think."
Davis-Butts said she would like to see the SMILE program play an even larger role on the OSU campus.
"We've brought more than 50 students to OSU through the program so we've succeeded as a recruiting tool," she said. "Now I would like to see the program impact the campus through positive change. We stress how different all of our backgrounds are and how to develop the best environment so every student at the university is given a voice and feels good about the campus community."