CORVALLIS, Ore. – An Oregon State University program known for helping underrepresented youth pursue careers in the sciences has just completed 25 years of serving rural communities. And it has also just received a national award for its work.
The Science & Math Investigative Learning Program, or SMILE, provides educational programming for underserved youth, and professional development and support to grade and high school teachers in 36 rural schools in Oregon. Classroom teachers serve as after-school club advisers, providing a curriculum to participating students which emphasizes science, technology, engineering and math, known as STEM.
Of the 700 now enrolled in SMILE, 85 percent are Latino and Native American, and the rest are low-income or first-generation white students. They all benefit from support in the areas of math, science and technology linked to college and careers.
Last month, 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 2012-13 school year. The award recognizes community-led partnerships to support struggling schools. SMILE was the only statewide, STEM-focused rural program honored.
More than 7,000 students have participated in SMILE over the last 25 years. SMILE provides college connection events and a summer bridge program for its graduates attending OSU, and hosts middle and high school challenge events that bring younger students together from across Oregon to engage in science- and math-related activities and challenge-solving exercises.
SMILE doesn't just increase math and science skills. It also increases the chances that students will graduate from high school and go on to college. Eighty nine percent of SMILE graduates go onto college, compared to 65 percent of their peers. And SMILE also increases the likelihood that a student will graduate from high school. The state average for high school graduation is 75 percent. Students with two years in SMILE graduate at a rate of 84 percent, and those who spent four or more years in SMILE graduate at a rate of 95 percent.
For some rural programs, SMILE has created new possibilities for the entire district. In Nyssa, Ore., for example, SMILE instructor and high school science teacher Ken Dickey said since SMILE has been introduced two decades ago, college is now a realistic goal.
“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,” Dickey said. “Their older brothers and sisters, their cousins and friends have already proven it so.”
SMILE assistant director Ryan Collay says that SMILE is not a stand-alone program. “Our function is (to serve) as glue that binds people together.”
Those people are teachers, school administrators, family members, leaders from OSU programs and other entities that all lend their support, aid and time to making the SMILE program thrive. Collay sees SMILE’s biggest successes in developing and facilitating mutually beneficial relationships between entities with similar goals, but less capacity to reach students.
“We work with the least-served schools because they are the least likely to gain any other services,” said Collay. SMILE staff looks for partners to amplify their own offerings, with both funding and expertise that greatly expand what SMILE could do on its own.
Some of SMILE’s regular partners include GEAR-UP (Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs), the Oregon University System’s Engineering and Technology Industry Council (ETIC), and the College Access Network.
With help from research partners such as the NOAA-funded Cooperative Institute for Oceanographic Satellite Studies and Oregon Sea Grant, they’ve developed ocean-based curriculum for high school students. Howard Hughes Medical Institute grants have funded many of their activities, and the Oregon Natural Resources Educational Program in the OSU College of Forestry has also been important, along with numerous other partnerships. They are part of an innovative education collaborative funded through the USDA in bioenergy research and education.
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.”