CORVALLIS - In its first move into a major urban area, a pioneering science program based at Oregon State University has added clubs at Beaverton, Hillsboro and Forest Grove middle and high schools, even as some of its earliest participants are now gra duating from college.
The phenomenal success of OSU's 10-year-old Science and Math Investigative Learning Experience, or SMILE program for minority students in grades 4-12, has garnered national attention, awards, additional public and private sponsors and is continuing to attract more interest from schools that wish to participate, said Sue Borden, director of the program.
"We're getting really good results now and the proof is in the numbers of our students who graduate from high school and go on to college," Borden said. "I think what makes SMILE different from so many other programs is we start with students at the el ementary level and keep working with them right through their entry into college. That continuity is so important."
The most recent expansion into Washington County west of the Portland was done at the request of schools there which had previously participated in another program but felt they would be better served by SMILE. It should also facilitate more collaborat ion with the Portland-area high technology industry, Borden said, which will now see more closely the SMILE impact on student education.
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. Local clubs create a positive, fun, hands- on approach to studying science, and also help familiarize minority, low-income or first-generation college students with a college atmosphere that may otherwise be foreign to their past family experience.
Since its inception, more than 2,400 students have participated.
"If a student starts with SMILE in elementary school and sticks with it, they should spend time on a college campus seven to nine times by the time they graduate from high school," Borden said. "And every step of the way our programs are positive and e ncouraging. From day one we tell these kids they're capable and able to compete with anyone at anything. And they do."
What started as an innovative idea with 80 students in four mostly-rural middle schools a decade ago, Borden said, has now expanded to 39 schools and 750 students. And the work is paying off.
In 1998, 100 percent of the SMILE participants who stayed with the program through high school got their 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 dr opout rate for SMILE seniors is close to zero, and last year 89 percent went on to college. Even a single year's participation in SMILE is yielding a high school graduation rate of 85 percent.
Last year, the program was able to give $32,000 in college scholarships to SMILE graduates who attend OSU. The affiliated Study Techniques, Academics and Research Skills, or STARS program, helped provide an eight-week summer bridge to college and an ac ademic and social head start. And more public and private support is being sought for further program expansion, Borden said - including more individual contributions which are critically needed.
But most of all, SMILE is fun.
"This is cool," said Maria Garcia, a student in the new Beaverton SMILE program at Meadow Park Middle School. She had just helped construct an "engineered" bridge out of straw and paper clips that held far more weight than the students thought possible . Her project was displayed at SMILE Family Night for her local school.
Meanwhile, elementary school SMILE participants from the Warm Springs Reservation took a field trip to Lake Billy Chinook to plant willow trees, clean up the lake and prevent soil erosion. Willamina High School students erupted a model volcano - repeat edly. And Woodburn students are testing well water for nitrates. "Challenge Weekends" on the OSU campus and "Outdoor Science Adventures" at the Oregon 4-H Center add to the fun.
SMILE receives support from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, Howard Hughes Medical Institute, NASA Space Grant Program, a variety of corporations and three Native American tribes in Oregon. Legislative support for further expans ion is also being sought, Borden said.
Last year - 10 years after the program began - the first two SMILE participants graduated from Oregon State University. And with almost 50 SMILE students now at OSU, the pipeline is about to produce a steady stream of college graduates.
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Sue Borden, 541-737-2388