BEND - Oregon State University is beginning the largest expansion in years of its Science and Math Investigative Learning Experiences, or SMILE Program, with a new initiative in Central Oregon to create more clubs, involve more schools and provide more funding, administrators and support. The moves are a key part of the university's commitment to expand higher education opportunities at the new OSU-Cascades Campus, officials say, and recognize that creating a successful approach to college is a long-term process that can and should begin as early as elementary school.

Two new SMILE program coordinators, Will Pereira and Sunny Ward, have just been hired to lead the expansion plans, bringing extensive experience in middle and high school education.

The OSU-Cascades Campus has also committed $225,000 a year to the expansion of the SMILE program in Central Oregon.

SMILE, a nationally recognized pre-college program primarily for minority students, uses clubs and fun, hands-on activities to encourage elementary, middle and high school students to develop their interests in math and science, and pursue careers in these fields. Since being founded in four Oregon schools with 80 students in 1988, it has grown to an enrollment of about 700 students in 38 schools with the involvement of 74 teachers across the state.

"We were gratified that SMILE expansion was made an important part of the proposals for the OSU-Cascades Campus," said Eda Davis-Butts, director of SMILE. "An overall goal in all of the Central Oregon plan is to improve access for local residents to higher education. But at SMILE, we know that this process doesn't start with an application made by a high school senior. If you are serious about success in college, it should be an attitude, mindset and skills that begin forming at very young ages."

The evolution of SMILE in Central Oregon, Davis-Butts said, will also recognize the unique demographics of the region, and create what will be called ACCESS Clubs.

"Traditionally SMILE focused its efforts on Hispanic and Native American students, along with some other ethnic minorities and those from low-income families," she said. "But since there are fewer minority students in Central Oregon, we've planned for our programs there to be more directed towards first-generation college students, low-income and female students along with minorities."

Also, SMILE was originally formed to nurture an interest in students to pursue careers in math, science, engineering and teaching, she said. That focus will be retained in Central Oregon, but the program will also serve a strong role in getting young students to consider any type of college education.

SMILE clubs can be formed in grades 4-12, and from the beginning emphasize a participatory, active and fun approach to learning math and science. Elementary students might wade into a pond and use microscopes to examine small animals they find there. Others create "slime" in chemistry experiments. During a "Challenge Event," they travel to OSU or other universities to get a taste of college life and interact with world-class scientists. And by high school students are involved in such work as gas chromatography or techniques to clean up contaminated soils.

SMILE students might do anything from building a pump to designing duct work and a cooling system for the International Space Station. And in work with educators, SMILE officials last spring brought groups of Oregon teachers to the H.J. Andrews Forest in the Oregon Cascade Range to learn about ecological research and "rediscover the wonder of learning."

"I've had SMILE students in my regular science class," said Pereira, one of the new program directors for Central Oregon who most recently was a high school science teacher in Madras. "These students seemed to be more comfortable, enjoy the class more and better understand the real-world applications of science. And as you see them learn and gain confidence, they start talking with their peers and other students about going to college."

Pereira said he and Ward hope to expand SMILE clubs across Central Oregon. There are firm plans and fund raising is already underway for a new middle school SMILE club to begin in Sisters by the 2002-03 school year, and conversations have begun with the Bend-La Pine School District and educators in Crook County. There are two existing SMILE programs in Central Oregon - at Madras and Warm Springs in Jefferson County, and at Chiloquin in Klamath County.

New SMILE offices are being set up at OSU's Empire Avenue facility in Bend and they should be moved to the new OSU-Cascades Campus when its facilities are completed. Within five years the Central Oregon operations may have as many as eight full-time staff and administrators and also manage the programs in Pendleton, Nyssa and Ontario, officials say.

"When we show teachers and administrators in Central Oregon what SMILE has accomplished elsewhere we're hoping they will want to get on board," Pereira said. "This is a major expansion for SMILE and there's a lot we can do in Central Oregon."

Ward, who most recently was on the faculty of Treasure Valley Community College in Ontario and has a master's degree in geology, says the SMILE facilities in Bend will provide new options.

"With this location we'll be able to make more community contacts and be closer to the people SMILE serves," Ward said. "There are a lot of logistical challenges to meet, but this is an exciting time for the program and we're looking forward to developing it."

When completed, the new SMILE expansion will become an integral part of the OSU-Cascades Campus, Davis-Butts said, and that campus will form the basis for many of the college campus visits made by SMILE students.