CORVALLIS, Ore. – One of the oldest and most successful college outreach programs at Oregon State University has added two new components – an “On the Road to College” initiative for elementary, middle and high school students, and participation in a major new coastal margin research program.
The Science and Math Investigative Learning Experiences Program is nearing its 20th anniversary next year, and the new offerings this fall will continue to expand a program that’s already recognized as a national model for its success in getting more Hispanic, Native American and other minority or economically disadvantaged students to pursue college careers.
Begun in the 1980s with four middle schools, eight teachers and 80 students, SMILE has now expanded to 35 elementary, middle and high schools in 15 communities, with 66 teachers and 700 students. More than 92 percent of students who spend four or more years in SMILE clubs attend college, compared to a statewide average of about 73 percent.
Eight classes of former SMILE students have now graduated from college, and some are now teachers in their own right – and advising SMILE clubs. The program has received multiple awards, including the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring.
“It’s been remarkable to see the growth and success of SMILE over the years, to see our students become working professionals,” said Eda Davis-Butts, director of the program. “We start early and provide a continuum of experiences, that’s one key to our success. But there’s always more you can do.”
Part of the new initiatives, Davis-Butts said, came from a realization that there were even more questions about college from students and their parents than the program had been able to answer.
“We’ve always had a strong college component to SMILE, bringing students to campus on things like our on-campus Challenge Events,” Davis-Butts said. “But about 70 percent of our students will be first-generation college attendees in their families, and recently it became apparent we weren’t doing a good enough job of really helping students and families understand all of what college is about.”
The new “On the Road to College” program works with SMILE students from fourth through twelfth grade, helping them to plan needed classes, learn about financial aid, consider the value of college, explore their personal goals, learn about the different types of college experiences and the careers associated with them, better understand college life, even develop theoretical schedules for managing college classes and other life activities.
A $40,000 grant from the JELD-WEN Tradition Foundation is also helping more SMILE participants travel to other colleges and universities besides OSU, recognizing the many types of private colleges, community colleges and other universities that offer a wide range of educational options.
In addition, this year SMILE will begin its participation with the new $19 million Center for Coastal Margin Observation and Prediction, a collaboration of Oregon Health and Science University, OSU and the University of Washington. Funded by the National Science Foundation, the program will support extensive Pacific Ocean coastal margin research off Oregon and Washington, and has a strong pre-college education and outreach component.
“We’ve already worked with a remote sensing ocean science research program supported by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, so this will be a natural extension for our SMILE clubs,” Davis-Butts said. “In fact, we’ll take some of what we’ve learned in that initiative and use it to help create the new outreach program, which will include SMILE clubs and Saturday Academy students to really reach a broad cross-section of Oregon students.”
SMILE activities are usually fun and engaging, Davis-Butts said, and the oceanographic programs make great study subjects. High school students have created “shoebox satellites” to simulate remote sensing and see what was inside the shoebox. They’ve done studies of wind impact on ocean surfaces, developed plans to deal with an off-coast oil spill, and were studying fishery management issues at the same time actual closures were under way on the Oregon coast.
“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-Butts said. “We want fourth-graders talking to college students and seeing the excitement of learning, dreaming about going to college.”
“I often think of one of our early students, a young Latino girl from Eastern Oregon whose parents had never been to college, didn’t know what to expect, had a lot of doubts. She had been in a different school every year until sixth grade.”
A long-time SMILE participant, the young lady struggled in some of her first college courses, Davis-Butts said. But SMILE advisers helped her to persevere, got her to talk to her instructors and ask for extra help. She soon gained confidence, graduated from OSU, continued with a master’s degree at a Midwestern university, and now is a social worker.
“This young woman credits her high school SMILE teacher with helping her to hang in there and succeed,” Davis-Butts said. “She, in turn, invested many hours mentoring younger SMILE students, especially those from her hometown. And her message was simple – ‘I did it, and you can too.’”